Silence looms within the room at the Temple.
The call came in. The message clear. It’s time to play Nemesis Q’s game again.
Too soon. That thought lingers at the forefront of my mind. It feels too soon since the last time. There hasn’t been enough time to train. Then again, I suppose there’s never enough time when you’re being coerced into fighting for your life—no matter how much you prepare for it.
I look over to see Ayako leaning against a wall with her ridiculous polearm next to her. She seems like the perfect picture of calm just standing there with her arms crossed and eyes closed. But, even without reading her mind, I can tell she’s deep in thought about how to make the best out of this situation now that she has to look after another three people.
Meanwhile, Gotou is pacing back and forth while absentmindedly rolling those oversized knuckledusters in his hands. Ayako said that he can work out his issues with killing the homunculi on his own. But I have doubts he’s made any significant progress on that front.
If he hesitates at the wrong moment it might bite us in the ass…
“Maybe these?” Makidera muses as she plucks yet another weapon from the cabin—a pair of metal tonfa this time.
She wraps her hands around the handles and then moves them around to get a feel for them. The long ends were just past the length of her elbows. The short ends stick out past her knuckles by the length of her longest fingers. They should be simple enough to use that she won’t need to fry her neurons thinking when she has whatever is waiting for us in that ashen wasteland trying to rip out her throat.
In contrast to her, Himuro went with a more complex choice by choosing a sickle and chain. I can’t pretend that I knew what was going through her mind when she picked it out, but I don’t think she intends to make much use of it. Since that discussion a few days ago she’s been focusing on refining her Burst more than anything, isolating herself from both her friends in the process from what Saegusa mentioned to me in private.
Speaking of the mousy one, she finally appears when the Student President pops into the room using his Teleportation Marker. Unlike the others, she insisted that she had to go home first and changed out of her school uniform for something akin to winter wear. Casual but practical at a glance, with lots of pockets.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says apologetically. “I know it was asking a lot, but—”
Makidera quickly brushes off her apology before she can even finish. “It’s not a big deal. You had a lot to do, right?”
“I just had to check my brothers, make sure they knew what would be for dinner, tell them not act too naughty while I was out, and a few other things…” She finishes counting off on her fingers with a deep breath and nods. “But now I’m ready.”
…No one really buys it. Not when none of us are ready to go die in some distant future. Fighting for a cause none of us signed up for willingly. All of us can see she’s just putting on a brave face, but none of us can call her out on it when she still came knowing that there’s a very real chance she won’t be coming back.
That none of us will be coming back alive.
“Don’t worry about anything!” Makidera says boisterously while giving her a pat on the back, showing off the tonfa in her hand. “We’ll keep you safe.”
That was the wrong thing to say. It might have been meant to be reassuring, but she was more terrified of them dying for that very reason given their last trip. Not that the loud one has any way of knowing that as Saegusa puts on a nervous smile before staring down at the ground.
I float a thought her way before she dwells on it too much. ‘You didn’t tip your family off too much, right?’
Her gaze turns to me. ‘I… um… just told them I might be a little late. And that my brothers should be good for our parents. And that…’
She bites down on her lower lip and looks at me somewhat guiltily. ‘And that if anything happened to me… I wanted them to know I love them.’
Another mistake. The reason we pretend to have normal lives is to avoid anyone getting suspicious about these little excursions. So that they don’t end up getting sucked in like how I did with Ayako’s situation.
But she just can’t separate herself from her family. Not without at least letting them know how much she cared. Even if she can’t tell them why to avoid wrapping them up in this, it’s just not in her nature to not do that.
Oh well. Damage done. Another matter for another day. ‘You can pass it off as just wanting to reaffirm things after the hospital visit, so it isn’t a big deal. Just remember to apologize for worrying them later, okay?’
She lets out a small breath in relief and gives a slight nod. Then she makes her way over to me, leaning against the wall next to me. ‘Umm… what did you tell your sister?’
‘I didn’t tell her a thing,’ I confess unashamedly. ‘I don’t have any intention of dying, and if I came out of nowhere and said something like that Sakura would undoubtedly start worrying that something was up. No sense in winding her up about nothing.’
And, even if by some chance something does happen to me… well, the paperwork for her to get everything has been in place well before now considering my condition. She’ll never have to work a day in her life, so Sakura will be just fine financially speaking. Emotionally…
I push the image out of my mind.
Meanwhile, Saegusa looks down to the ground. ‘Oh… I see… I wish I could be so sure like that. Even Maki-chan and Kane-chan are so calm, but I’m still so nervous that my stomach feels like it’s turning in knots.’
Again, not a surprise. But rather than trying to calm her down with empty platitudes, I decide to take a more practical approach. ‘Make a Mind Jack.’
My sudden request catches her off-guard. But after a moment she closes her eyes and weaves a Mind Jack into existence. It flows from the base of her skull and connects our minds. ‘How’s this?’
‘It’s well-made,’ I tell her truthfully. While the shell feels thinner than my constructs, so the amount of information that can flow through it might be bottlenecked, it feels smooth. And she constructed it rather quickly.
Despite my praise, she meekly brushes her fingers against her arms and keeps her eyes on the ground. ‘It’s nothing special. I know that Mitsuzuri-san and Kane-chan can make them as well—’
I place my hands on her shoulders before she goes on. ‘Saegusa. Look at me.’
Her head shoots up and her soft, brown eyes meet my own.
‘It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t even do basic Telepathy. The fact that you can do the same thing as someone as experienced as Mitsuzuri and as competent as Himuro means that you’re just as capable as I thought you were.’
‘But… that’s only because you spent so much time helping me…’
True, I might have spent more time grooming her to be a capable Trance-user so she doesn’t get herself killed. But she legitimately did put in the work to get this far despite having obligations to her family, and never once complained. Yeah, she needed the talent to get this far. But she worked to make something of that talent.
I let the sincerity of that paint my thoughts as I continue. ‘Even so, you’ve never disappointed me. That’s why, while I expect you to be terrified and make mistakes, I know you’ll do the best you can and make up for it. So, stop underselling yourself already.’
‘Matou…kun…’ She only catches her slip up after the fact and it leaves a crimson blush that paints her cheeks.
I only give her a small smile before gesturing my head over to the weapons cabinet. ‘Now let’s get you armed for the trip.’
She nods meekly and mutely, following me to take stock of the arsenal. She isn’t suited towards strengthening her body for combat, so heavy weapons are out. She has no practice with anything that requires dexterity or skill, so a staff is out of the question as well. And I don’t trust her not to hit someone in close-range combat if we gave her a long-range weapon either, so we might as well go with the practical choice then. ‘Take this.’
Her slender fingers curl around the Tanto within its sheath. It’s the same one I used before, so I know it can get the job done. Ideally, she won’t need to use it. But if she does need it then she’ll have it.
She looks it over for a moment. ‘Won’t you need it?’
‘I’ve got my own packed away, plus I bought a couple of weighted chains and some metal stakes used for camping to serve as ranged weapons. The chains can be used to bind the mouths of any of those damn hounds to keep them from screaming at us. As for the stakes, I can program them to seek out and strike the cores or brains of the Taboo, so it’ll be more efficient to support everyone.’
She winces, probably imagining what the latter would look like. The casual way I mention impaling spikes into the brains of the homunculi probably doesn’t help either. The rest of the preparations are understandably done in solemn silence.
Then we jump back into the future.
The steel-grey sky welcomes us for the third time with a lonely whisper in the breeze. The chill riding it digs past my flesh and muscle to caress the bones. It’s enough to stiffen my spine as the tang of metal on the wind lines my tongue on its way down my throat.
“Is… it always like this?” asks Saegusa as her small body shifts around uncomfortably in the wind. It’s not the sheer cold she’s talking about. It’s the thrumming going on inside of her from feeling her powers grow stronger.
“Even with forewarning, it’s still an unpleasant thing to experience,” Himuro notes while adjusting her glasses with one hand. To her credit, she hid whatever abnormality she felt with her neutral expression.
The same can’t be said for Makidera, currently rocking back and forth on the ball of her heels, I won’t be surprised if she starts sprinting laps around the half-eroded road that we’re on from how energetic it’s making her feel. Thankfully, common sense seems to be doing its job and keeping her feet still.
“You adapt quicker to it over time,” Ayako states with a shrug. “But it’s best that you wait for it to settle down before trying any PSI. We don’t know what’s out there or what mission we have, so the first thing we should do is find a place to hunker down in for the moment.”
We scan the roadside for shelter immediately. Standing out in the open like this is just begging to get us spotted before we can properly fight back. Not to mention how cold it is. We manage to spot a place among the bones of what were once massive buildings that’ll suffice and shuffle into it.
After slipping on the winter clothes and ensuring the supplies made the transition without any problem, Ayako heads for the entrance with her weapon in hand. “I’ll go scouting for a bit.”
She nods. “Getting a better understanding of the situation will make things easier in the long run, and I’m used to doing this sort of thing whenever I arrive.”
“Then I’ll make a Mind Jack so we can at least—”
“I can handle that. You just focus on waiting out the adjustment period,” she states before spinning out a Mind Jack. The tip angles towards me for a moment before suddenly swerving and connecting to Gotou. “I’ll let you know if I find anything, but until then don’t broadcast or give away our position.”
I stamp down on the feeling gnawing in my chest as she closes the entrance. The rational part of me can recognize that she’s being considerate considering how little time we had to adjust the last time. We were only a trip ahead of these three and the sensation was still moderately distracting, so not wanting us to attempt even something as simple as creating a Mind Jack is understandable.
But looking at the construct, and whom she chose to link it to, the realistic part of me concedes she’s still wary about letting me in her head after that last time. She has no assurances it won’t happen again when the best I can tell her is that I’m handling it. Gotou is the safer choice at the end of the day.
Whatever. I shift my focus onto helping Saegusa. “Just close your eyes, calm your breathing, and focus on everything slowing down and closing in until you’re in the state of mind we normally practice in during our sessions.”
Her eyes close. Her shoulders relax. Her chest rises and falls in time with her breath, matching the rhythm that we practiced together. Good.
I look towards the others and catch them doing the same. Breathing exercises aren’t exactly foreign to members of the Track Club, so they can copy the physical motions easily enough. And Gotou will likely adapt quicker than them simply due to previous exposure, so there’s no need to worry about him.
So that just leaves me.
I put myself through the motions and mindset. The storm settles within me soon enough. Then I test out my limits by preparing one of the safeguards I have planned for when we inevitably run into Atlasia.
It’s based on the principles of a Mind Jack. Specifically, the exterior shell designed to keep the more sensitive Trance waves inside of it. I use the construction as a foundation and let it expand slowly so that it encroaches over my body inch-by-inch, until it forms a membrane wrapping around me from head-to-toe.
I breathe out and open my eyes once it was done to see Saegusa staring at me with her head quirked to the side. “Has your PSI settled down now?”
She nods. “I should be able to use it now without any problems.”
“Then spin out a Mind Jack and try to connect with me.”
Her brows furrow slightly in concentration for a moment. Then out comes the wired connector in roughly the same time that it took back in the present. Not a surprise since being able to program the process is above her skill level at present—foundation first, efficiency afterward.
It slithers towards me and curves smoothly around to the back of my skull, intending to sink into the base and connect us. Then the tip stops as it catches on the membrane. The familiar touch of her mind remains absent.
Her brows arch. “You… found a way to block me?”
“In light of what happened the last time we came here, I thought I should try out some anti-Trance techniques.”
Specifically, I wanted a method to avoid having my mind read wantonly or my thoughts influenced by an outside force. The simplest method of doing so is to shut them out before they can get to my brain. Ideally, it’ll work on even non-Trance methods of mental interference as well.
“Try to force it in until I say to stop.”
She seems mildly uncomfortable about using her PSI in such a manner, but she ultimately does attempt to force the Mind Jack past my defenses. The membrane manages to hold up, but it feels like it’s being grounded away as her own Trance construct pushes against it. Probably because the Mind Jack has more density to contain the regular telepathic transmissions.
A dense enough Trance construct could simply erase it. Then again, being composed of Trance energy means that it won’t offer any sort of protection from physical interference. But what about regular Trance waves?
“Try with regular Telepathy now,” I instruct her.
She does so. Or at least I think she does by how her expression shifts for a few moments before she gives up. “It looks like you couldn’t hear me.”
No signs of any notable degradation within the membrane. I can only presume that any thoughts she tried to float my way ended up breaking against it—like water splashing against an umbrella. However, if it shuts me out of all thoughts other than my own, it’ll effectively render me deaf and mute to telepathy.
It’ll be a gamble to keep it active at all times in that case. Telepathic transmission happens to be our primary means of long-distance communication. I can probably key it to allow for specific people to circumvent it if there’s a specific frequency or signature to an individual’s Trance waves…
No, I’m getting too far ahead of myself right now. I need to focus on what it can do for me in the short-term. It’s a safety net against having Atlasia and other trance-users getting into my head unwillingly. But if that does happen, I’ll have to resort to the other two methods I have on hand.
But I push that aside for the moment to address the others once I notice them listening in. “You three finished adjusting as well?”
Makidera opens her eyes and crosses her arms. “The shakes have settled down enough. I’m ready to go.”
In lieu of a verbal answer, Himuro holds out her hand with her palm facing upwards. Then something proceeds to take shape, similar to how Gotou created a simple ball to knock down the cards in a demonstration of how Burst could manifest. Only in her case what formed was an almost glass-like octahedron.
It floated above her palm for a moment before her gray eyes peered to the wall on the opposite side of the room we were in. Then it shot towards it as if it was thrown at the speed of maybe a fastball. It shattered upon hitting the wall, but not before leaving a rough indent that was a quarter-inch deep.
“I believe I’ve acclimated well enough,” she finally answers while adjusting her glasses. “It seems like my Burst has more physical substance than when I practiced back home. But it’s still too fragile to be of use against anything with a hard exterior.”
“A simple answer would have been fine, but whatever.” I turn to Gotou last. “What about you?”
He looks down at his hand from his perch against the wall at the prompt. Then he closes his eyes and forms it into a fist. “…There aren’t any problems from what I can tel—”
Gotou’s head snaps up and his words die as he looks towards me. Makidera takes a step back and bends her legs. Saegusa nearly falls off her makeshift seat in surprise. And Himuro grips her weapon tighter.
That’s when I turn around to see what set them on high alert.
And come face-to-face with Nemesis Q.
“Ughhh… why do we have to do this stuff?”
As the autumn sun was slouching over the horizon, the soft whines of a somber panther fill the air.
The former captain of the Track Team was miserably carrying a set of steel poles along with Gai. They were meant to be used building the different stands for the sake of the upcoming cultural festival. The collective weight wasn’t light by any means, but since we were the only ones left on the campus there was no reason to hold back using Rise.
The Cultural Festival would be within the first week of November. That wasn’t too far off from now and there was still a lot of work to be done for certain clubs. Hence the reason we were still here at this hour.
I roll my eyes at her complaining before turning my attention back to my own assignment. Manual labor is beneath me in most cases, but I treat it more as rudimentary training to master the form of telekinesis that suits me. By brushing a finger across a nail and infusing it with my PSI, I can program them to drive themselves into place with no physical effort on my part.
It’s a simple program at the end of the day—requiring a set amount of energy to carry out a simple routine at a specific distance. Not the flashiest uses of PSI, but driving the sharp end of a weapon into the head or core of the target is a practical and efficient method of killing. It also requires no extra effort on my part once its set into motion aside from the implementation of a return function.
“It’s not fair that we have to suffer alone when we can’t even run or participate with the Track Club anymore,” the loud one continues to whine. But, like how a broken clock was right at least twice a day, she has a point. None of us would even be here under normal circumstances, since only current club members are required to construct their own stands and displays.
Then again, her mouth is the reason we’re here now.
Even I could tell the Student President was in a mood after his return from… wherever he and his brother ventured off to. But she lacked that ability apparently. So here we were, pitching in with helping the clubs that were dragging behind—Archery and Track Club included.
I have a barb on my tongue ready to go and remind her that she’s the reason we’re here. But then I see Himuro looking up from sketching out a design that’ll later be shaped and painted into a sign and hold my tongue. It’s more fun to watch sometimes.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t this because you were the one who kept egging on Ryuudou about the training camp?”
Himuro’s opening salvo starts out with a factual reminder and a pointed stare. Caught unaware by the sudden assault Makidera recoils as if she’s been slapped. But Himuro doesn’t relent as she continues her verbal assault.
“And didn’t you also come up with this needlessly elaborate design and theme for the Track Club? Despite the fact that everyone else in the club pointed out it wouldn’t be practical?”
“And, after you insisted that we still do it, rather than having everyone work on it bit-by-bit each session you said we’ll just leave it alone until a few days before the festival so we can concentrate on practice—and then let whoever had the worst time on the field hammer it out, which is the qualification that you now meet?”
I grin when the realization that she ultimately dug her own grave blossoms on her face. It’s like a work of art. If only I could capture the moment on camera…
“Matou-kun, you shouldn’t smile at Maki-chan being scolded.”
A gentle chastisement in a soft voice courtesy of Saegusa breaks the moment. She has a small, disproving frown on her face that a pre-school teacher wears while scolding a child for laughing at another hurting themselves by being stupid. Yes, they have it coming but you shouldn’t make fun of them because of it.
I’d probably take more offense to it if not for the fact that it came from… well, her.
The mousiness that comes naturally to her makes it hard to take her seriously. Really, the fact that she’s gotten comfortable enough in the last week to actually call me out on it is more of a surprise. But it also serves to further a theory I’ve had for some time now.
“Just now… you addressed me rather informally, didn’t you?”
A brief look of surprise crosses her face. It’s genuine too. The moment she realizes the implications she starts to get flustered like one would expect.
“Oh, I didn’t… I’m sorry if—”
I shake my head and quell her worry before she gets too worked up about it. “I don’t really mind. You can even just call me by my name like Mitsuzuri does occasionally if you want. I just noticed you never did the same for her or Gotou.”
Saegusa isn’t nearly as formal as Himuro, but the number of people she addresses casually can be counted on a hand. Even if I don’t consider it that big of a deal, for her it’s a huge leap that shouldn’t be happening so fast. It’s most likely because she’s unaware of how her powers are starting to influence her.
Mental Interference can easily be obstructed by Magic Resistance. That is why Physical Interference is the preferred method of dealing with an enemy magus. But there is also another risk—the risk of losing oneself in the process of working the mind of another.
To affect one’s mind as a magus and change their thought processes pulled their own along that same path depending on the means and methods. To get around that other means were utilized, such as psychology, artificial Mystic Eyes that work like projections, and so on. But there is a difference between suppressing a memory to forget an event or hypnotism compared to linking minds together like we do.
It breaks down the separation of self and leaves us malleable to a greater degree—at least that’s what I believe.
Saegusa has no safeguard for her own thoughts and emotions inside her own head. She lacks the mindset to separate one identity from another with self-hypnosis that I do from my misspent years. How long until she changes because of that without realizing it?
Then again, even preparation and mindset aren’t perfect. Touching one’s mind can make you consider things. Make you reflect on yourself in ways you normally wouldn’t be able to.
Touching the emotions woven into the memories of both that woman from the future and Saegusa left a mark on me. I’ve been considering just what familial affection is because of them. How it relates to Sakura and myself.
Saegusa’s affection towards her younger siblings was something…warm. Light. It’s like a gentle breeze that caresses the heart, or so my sixth sense interprets.
Yet… I can’t relate to that when I think of Sakura.
I’m trying to make amends for everything I’ve done. But I just don’t have the same depth of emotions for Sakura that Saegusa has for her younger siblings. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d still be relatively sane after everything I did to her.
Not just to her body, but her mind.
I never shied away from reminding Sakura that her purpose was to be a plaything. I enjoyed bringing up that someone like Emiya would never want someone as dirty as her. That the only thing she’s good for was… things that I enjoyed at the time.
I could see it in her eyes that Sakura honestly took it to heart at some point too.
That’s why she never once made an attempt to be happy with Emiya after the war. Realistically, she’ll probably never seek out a lover. Even without looking into her mind I can tell she believes she’s been too dirtied to deserve such things it.
Did I even care that I ruined her in such a matter back then? Was I going to take care of her for the rest of her life as my toy, using her in the same way my own mother had been used to sire a heir? Or was I going to throw her away?
…Either way, the damage has been done.
I can’t take it back. I can’t even say that I’ll be alive or sane enough to take responsibility if things keep getting worse for me. Once I’m gone she’ll be alone with that burden.
Any chance of a normal sibling relationship is long gone. I’ve already crossed too many lines with her to even attempt that. There’s no going back.
But then I recall the warmth of Saegusa’s affection for her own siblings. The happiness she finds in being part of their lives. It feels… nice.
I can’t help but wonder if it that’s the way I’m supposed to feel about Sakura. I think at some point I even might have felt that way when we first met. But once I found out she was replacing me as heir all of that vanished.
Part of me wants more of it. To let down my guard and just feel the warm touch of Saegusa’s emotions as our mind’s meld. Just so I can reclaim a bit of what was lost.
Just as a little happiness to balance out everything I was dealing with. The Grail’s curse. The ruined future. All of it.
But I can’t take that risk with her.
Ayako still gets nervous when she feels my thoughts brush her mind. Everything in her body still rejects the brief glimpse of horrors in my head she witnessed. She’s a lot of things but frail isn’t one of them considering everything she’s gone through as a Drifter.
The same cannot be said for Saegusa. For a girl who lived an ordinary and happy life until now to be exposed to even a fraction of the mire in the back my mind… for someone whose thoughts and feelings are so easily exposed to experience those things …
The image of glasswork shattering comes to my mind.
Her psyche would break into too many pieces to really recover. Even if she did, she’d never be the same. The warmth she holds for her family. The guilt she bears from nearly getting her friends killed the last trip. All those things that make up the mousy, innocent girl in front of me would be no more.
I can’t be responsible for that. I can’t let those things be tainted and defiled because I let her into my head just to savor the feel of them. I can’t make the same mistake that I did with Sakura again…
‘Is everything alright?’
I realize I lost myself in thought the moment Saegusa’s warmth touches my mind like a cloud drifting on the wind. Her brows are folded in and her neck is tilted ever so slightly as she observes me. I pull my head back slightly and force a small smile as I lie.
‘Just coming up with a new training regimen. I think you need to practice with the others more often so you can use your powers more frequently. I’ll try to convince the sadist to lay off you until then.’
The Student President wasn’t any softer on Saegusa than he was with me when he got back from his trip. Or any of them really. But the difference was that while the other two were no strangers to physical work, she was and often ended up the most exhausted. She just isn’t suited to using Rise in an offensive capacity like them.
‘You don’t have to,’ her mind whispered to mine. ‘I know it’s hard. But I need to be able to do everything I can to help everyone. That includes taking care of myself.’
And despite it all Saegusa never once complains about the training. She doesn’t even harbor ill-will towards Ryuudou, even though every night so far she’s needed to be carried home from exhaustion. She just keeps forcing herself to get up and keep trying because she wants everyone to be safe.
‘…You’re pretty amazing, you know that?’
I’m pretty stingy when it comes to genuine praise, but it’s deserved. The fact that it coaxes a blossoming smile from her face shows she appreciates it as well. I have to say it suits her nicely.
“Hey, quit flirting in each other’s heads over there and get back to work!”
Unfortunately, Makidera ruins the moment with her thoughtless accusations. The warm expression turns to one of fluster. She avoids my gaze and tries to justify how happy she looked just moments ago. “I…it’s n-not like that…”
“Makinoji…” Himuro’s voice came out a bit more frosty than normal. The light of the evening sun obscures her eyes behind her glasses. But I can imagine she’s glaring at the thoughtless monkey. “Please think carefully before you speak again tonight.”
She catches on she might have botched things from the expression on her face. But it’s too little and too late. We call it an evening a little later and put away everything before heading home.
Or at least the others do.
I stay behind just a little longer to make sure everything is in order. I didn’t want to have the sadist in my ear about a misplaced screwdriver or anything. Then I grab my bag and make my way out of the gates.
“May I have a word?”
That’s when Himuro calls out to me. She’s standing next to the wall on the outside of the gates, arms crossed.
“I thought you left with the others to escort Saegusa back to her home?”
“Since Maki was hungry and Saegusa wanted to get some snacks for her family, I told them I would catch up with them in Miyama. I didn’t want them to wait for me while I spoke with you in private.”
“Oh really?” I cross my arms and stand a little straighter. “Talk to me about what?”
She adjusts her glasses and meets my gaze. “I won’t defend what Maki did, but we’ve been friends for a long time now. She does tend to speak tactlessly, but in this case it’s because she picked up on how strangely Yukika acts around you. I’m sure you can understand that with everything going on, it’s somewhat worrying to us.”
“And she somehow interpreted that as us being lovers?” I nearly laugh. “A bit of a stretch, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it might seem that way to you, but…” She brings her hand to her chin and closes her eyes for a moment, as if in thought. “Before I say anything more, I would like your word that you’ll not utter a word of this to her. Agreed?”
I arch a brow. She approached me and now she wanted my word to keep silent about it. There should be a limit to how self-entitled you can be. But I humor her. “Fine. Now spill.”
She opens her eyes and then takes on a firm expression. “The way she looks at you at times is really incomparable to how she was even a month ago. You were quite a notorious person during our Second Year and onwards. So much so that even she couldn’t help but hold some disdain towards the mention of your name.”
I clench my teeth for a moment at the thought of that happening. It’s a complete contradiction when she doesn’t even hold an inkling of hatred towards the one who worked her over during training. I barely even talked to her back then.
…But then I remember Blood Fort Andromeda and that they were among the victims. I can’t claim it’d be undeserved. Even if those memories were locked away or removed.
I let out my frustration with a sigh. “Your point being?”
“Even though there were rumors that you’d become upright or at least less abrasive, the impression from before remains so firmly entrenched that it’s hard to be shaken. Yet, there are moments when she looks at you and simply smiles like before. Since you saved her from that monstrous dog it’s like she has an… admiration for you, at the very least.”
I scratch my head and realize what she’s getting at. “…Listen, you don’t have all the facts so you’re piecing together a conclusion that isn’t right because of that. It isn’t love or admiration or whatever you think it is.”
“Then what is your perception of things?”
I payback her own entitlement with a demand of my own. “Do I have your word that this won’t reach any of the others?”
She nods without hesitation. “It would only be fair.”
I give a heavily abridged version of my thoughts on the matter. That I’ve had my own suspicions about how our powers might influence our personalities. That they are too far removed from what is normal to not have any drawbacks. That powers that aren’t purely physical might have a greater influence on the behavior.
I use the Student President as a reference. That he doesn’t pay consideration to pain because he believes he can heal anything short of death. He doesn’t empathize with it easily anymore or has at least seen and experienced wounds so egregious that anything short of that will be met with little concern.
She understands well enough. “In summation, you believe that she’s being nudged by her own powers because you two share a similar affinity with the same categorization of PSI. That it’s influencing her to an extent?”
I nod. “I’m lacking complete hard evidence, but the reason she was acting flustered earlier was because I made a note of her referring to me without honorifics. She hadn’t realized that she did so. It’s not a big a deal for most people, but—”
Himuro picks up on the train of thought instantly. “She doesn’t refer to others so casually unless she’s well-acquainted with them. She’s a polite girl so it goes against her ingrained behavior. The fact that she did so unknowingly means that she regards you as being someone she can be comfortable with.”
Another nod. “I only brought it up so she’ll start thinking on any other things she might have done differently or open up a little more to the others. The only reason I haven’t shared this with anyone else is because we cannot have them being afraid of their own powers when it could mean the difference between life and death. More so when the circumstances can easily explain away these changes as well considering it is a rather perilous one.”
“I see…” She removes her glasses and looks down at the lenses in silence for a moment. “I can’t say I’d thought it out to the same depths as you, but I had considered that not everything was as clear as it might have been. There are so many uncertainties about everything else and now we can’t even be certain if any changes we make are of our own will.”
I remain silent to let her process everything. Someone who runs off pure emotion won’t handle it well. But Himuro is logical to a greater extent than the majority of people in the school. She’ll take that into consideration and put that before her emotions. Or so I hope.
“The best we can do is survive first and foremost. And to do that we must change, knowingly or unknowingly. Willingly or unwillingly. As long as it doesn’t completely take away from who we are, I believe we can at least claim that we are the sum of our own decisions.”
Settling on that conclusion she replaces her glasses. “So be it then.”
I sling my bag over my shoulder. “That should settle things then. I’ll leave it to you to explain to the loud one there isn’t anything romantic between Saegusa and myself. I don’t have any inclinations to seek out a lover with everything going, and even if I did, she doesn’t deserve to be stuck with a guy like me.”
That done, I start walking back home in silence. Himuro doesn’t say anything to acknowledge the discussion any further. Then again, nothing to be said now that she has reached her own resolve about how to approach things: To survive we’ll have to change, knowingly or unknowingly. Willingly or unwillingly.
In hindsight, I suppose we can only blame ourselves for what happened a few days later. That was when we returned to that future where the vampire awaited us. That was when we did something we’d regret for the rest of our lives beneath the ashen sky. It was…
The sum of our decisions.
After she finishes her Lunch, Saegusa follows me down a corridor that leads to what was formerly the Old Worm’s study. She’s nervous as she trails behind me, eyes peering into every shadow. It’s like she’s expecting something to leap out and attack her.
‘We’re—’ She jumps the moment my mind touches hers. ‘—almost there. You need to calm down or it’ll be harder on you.’
Her short hair bobs as she drops her head, bringing her hands to her chest to settle her heart. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little nervous.”
More than a little. Not that I can say I’m surprised. It’s not just her mousy disposition at work, but how the Old Worm constructed this place.
The domain of a magus was one where they were most comfortable, and the place where they had the most power. The shadows hid countless cracks and crevices his familiars could fit themselves into. The walls were always watching and listening. Even now, the ghost of his presence persists.
“It’s just us here,” I tell her in as nice of a voice I can manage, trying to set her at ease. “Nothing will hurt you. I promise.”
Her eyes look up towards me for a moment and there’s relief in them. But then she looks away, casting her eyes on the walls again. “…Umm… I’m surprised that you don’t have any pictures here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Of your family,” she clarifies. “I just thought that a place like this would have a lot of pictures of your ancestors. To help you remember them since your family has lived here for a long. Maki-chan has a lot of them.”
The Old Worm didn’t bother with keeping portraits of the family members, including himself. They weren’t important to him beyond continuing the bloodline. And there was probably nothing he felt the need to keep around to preserve a memory, since he kept himself alive to remember it.
“I guess my family was never interested in that sort of thing.” We reach the door to the study at the end of the corridor. I enter first and flick on the lights, causing the room to brighten from absolute darkness to a subdued and dim brightness. Enough to read something without straining the eyes, but not enough to warm the room.
Saegusa sits in the chair in the middle of the room, about a yard away from the of the thick, wooden desk I sit behind. It’s large and cushioned, so she’d be comfortable for the next two hours. But a mixture of anxiousness and nervousness keeps her spine stiff on the edge of it.
‘Sit back and relax. We’ll be here for some time and you need to be comfortable.’
She slides back in the seat before settling in to listen as best she can. Her eyes never leave mine while I give her a larger overview of the nature of Trance than what I did when we were in the future, such as the factors that influence the telepathic waves, limitations, and so on. It’s only when I explain the concept of the Mind Jack that she looks lost. “So… it’s like those can-and-string telephones my brothers played with?”
‘Those work because sound waves cause the cans to vibrate, which passes through the string to do the same to the other one. Mine uses a hollowed-out channel for trance waves to pass through without interference through the active-use of psychicer’s power. We can go over the specifics another time, but for the moment you need to learn how to project your own thoughts to others. Are you ready to begin?’
She takes a deep breath. “I’m ready, Matou-san.”
I walk her through the basic steps and sit back to see if she can manage on her own for the next thirty minutes. In theory its relatively simple: you bundle your thoughts up and float them over like a cloud. Since Trance energy has a more ‘immaterial’ feel to it than Burst energy under normal circumstances, viewing it that way helps the unformatted energy inside of you take on that nature.
However, it… doesn’t go over so well with her in practice. Her soft pants pad out the isolated room and beads of sweat dot her brow. But, even with her appearing to try her hardest, her failures only continue to mount.
Once we reach the thirty-minute mark, I call it. “It’s been thirty minutes. Take a break.”
She refuses, shaking her head. “I can do it this time. I know it.”
“I said that’s enough, Saegusa.”
The message carries, and she stops straining herself needlessly at the slight rise in my tone. But her head hangs low with the weight of her failure and she takes a deep, shuddering breath. Don’t tell me she’s about to cry?
“I couldn’t get it,” she says in a small voice, barely above a whisper, while placing her hands on her lap. “I tried, but…”
“That’s fine,” I tell her. “The whole goal for now was to see if you could grasp it on your own enough to where I’d be confident that you could manage even if not under supervision. The fact that you couldn’t just means that I have to guide you with a more hands-on approach.”
Her skirt shifts as she clutches the fabric tightly. “But… if I can’t use this one, then I’ll have to…”
“If you can’t get it before our next trip then we’ll keep you safe and then try again afterwards. By then your abilities will have increased so we can make it work.”
“But I don’t want to be protected.” She slowly brings her hands up her chest and crosses them over her heart. “Maki-chan, Kane-chan, and even you… all of you got hurt helping me. I couldn’t do anything but watch. It hurts when I think about it, and I don’t want to just watch again as everyone else…”
Her voice cracks as she trails off. Not that I can blame her when I know that feeling. Or a similar kind of feeling—hers are likely a product of her caring nature, whereas mine stems from the need for personal independence.
To not be able to do something you should on your own eats away at you. Because not only did you lack the power to deal with a problem yourself, but you were completely at the mercy of someone else who saved you on a whim. Had it been anyone other than Emiya who saved me, albeit through Tohsaka, and Sakura who helped nurse me in my weaker moments, I’d never be able to live with the shame.
Taking that into consideration, it’s likely her mental hang-ups are also what’s stopping her from getting the hang of it. She needs to have a clear mind starting out if she’s going to do this. But if we’re going to fix that issue I need to know what’s going on in her head.
“Fine, we’ll try a few more times.” I construct a Mind Jack from the back of my neck. “Now then, with your consent, I’m going to try connecting directly into your mind with this.”
She seems a little skeptical. Not surprising given I had mentioned being able to read minds with it. Few people were comfortable with that and for good reason.
“It’s going to act like that telephone idea you mentioned. With it attached, you should be able to transmit your thoughts to me through it with less effort and feel it more clearly when my thoughts touch your mind. I’m hoping that between the exposure and connection you’ll be able to manage, but if you want to refuse I’d understand.”
She looks down for a moment in thought, biting her lower lip. Then she looks up anxiously and asks, “And you promise you won’t read my mind?”
“You have my word.” The lie comes easily and with a reassuring smile. “Do I have you permission?”
Saegusa buys it and meekly nods her head, giving consent. The Mind Jack connects into the base of her skull slowly and carefully, but the foreign sensation still makes her twitch in her seat. She reaches back to rub the spot instinctively, only to be surprised when her hand goes through it.
From my experimenting earlier, I can tell people who don’t have access to PSI can’t feel it or see it. Even then, unless she uses her own Trance or Burst she can’t remove it. ‘Can you feel my thoughts clearer now?’
“It’s hard to put it into words exactly, but it feels… delicate.”
‘That’s the Trance energy, or at least how you’re interpreting it. Keep this sensation in the back of your mind and then try to focus on wrapping your own thoughts in it that same feeling and sending it out through the line. Unless you push it through, it won’t come to me.’
She closes her eyes and tries again. This time I passively pull at her thoughts in the process, keeping the channel open and letting me hear her thoughts. If I feel her Trance energy starting to form then I’ll close it properly, but this is the best chance I’ll get to check right now.
He’s shown me how to do it. I just have to wrap it up like a present and send it to him. Matou-san, can you hear me? Am I doing it…?
No, he said I have to push it after wrapping it up in that sensation. I can do that much. Just wrap it up… why isn’t it working? I’m trying. I really am. You’re listening to me now aren’t you?
You probably think I’m a failure, but I really am trying. Please tell me its working.
—I keep my features entirely schooled when she eventually opens her eyes, unable to resist her doubts as they mount. There’s more than a little fear in her eyes that I heard all of that, but I pretend otherwise. “Nothing’s gone down the line yet. Try it one more time.”
She screws her eyes shut and tries to block out the paranoia that I’m listening to her inner rambling as it continues, but it doesn’t take. There’s also no hint of her own Trance energy in the thoughts she’s trying to project outwards. Her doubts appear to be actively hampering her.
If we don’t do something about that she might hit a mental block and it’ll force us to relegate her to something like a pack mule for our belongings to make her useful. And while she might do so without question, it’d probably only add to her doubts. But I can’t just tell her that everyone has doubts or some spiel like clearing her mind since she’ll think it came from me reading her mind.
I mean, she wouldn’t be wrong considering that’s exactly what I did. But she doesn’t need to know that. What she needs is one solid success to wipe away the doubts. She only has to succeed once today.
And to do that she needs a distraction. ‘Saegusa, I want you to focus on one of the happiest memories you have.’
Her eyes open at that. “A memory?”
‘Any that you’re comfortable sharing with me,’ I clarify. ‘I think part of why this isn’t working is we aren’t going big enough. PSI responds to strong emotions, so if it’s a really happy memory then it might work because you’ll want to share it. I’ll walk you through a visualization technique aloud to keep your thoughts uninterrupted by mine, okay?’
“I’ll do my best,” she says, her brows folding in determination. The sensation of my thoughts actively touching her mind seems to ease her doubts a lot that I wasn’t listening in since she didn’t feel it. That’s more so a lack of experience on her front, but whatever works.
I start guiding her through it. “Now close your eyes and pick out a memory that you treasure. The more vivid, the better. Immerse yourself into it as deeply as you can until it’s as clear as possible. Take as much time as you need.”
She closes her eyes and settles in to do so, shoulders rising and falling. It takes several minutes as she tries to find the right memory to use, thoughts flickering back and forth on the surface. Most of them are dreadfully boring at a passing glance, but eventually she settles on one longer than the others—a family moment that spreads a soft smile on her lips.
I take that as a cue to continue. “Since you’re smiling, I’m assuming you’ve got it. Now try to visualize that memory playing in front of you rather than being in the moment. Picture that you’re a separate person looking down on that memory.”
Her lips furrow slightly as she tries to do so. It’s not something most people do, looking at a memory from the outside in. But by pulling herself out of the memory she’ll be able to picture it as a separate object and thus have less compunctions about sending it my way.
She tries a few different methods of doing so, but it takes a long time for her to truly manage it. This memory is precious to her and she doesn’t want to part with it easily, so she’s starting to wonder if she should find a different one. But then she reasons out that I can relate to the feeling as an older brother of having a sibling, and part of her wants let someone else see her brother the way she does even when he acts naughty.
The last step is left now. “If you’re ready, I want you visualize that you’re sending that memory to me. Our minds are connected, so just picture it being wrapped up in that delicate energy you felt earlier and then picture it floating to me. The rest will follow naturally.”
I feel the prickling of Trance energy mere seconds after I go silent. She’s doing it. Good. I close the channel between us and ready myself to receive it since her PSI should push it through—
“Yuki-chan, we’re back,” Mommy says as she steps through the door to our home. “Did you miss us?”
I rush over to her side and stand on my toes to hug her. She’s been gone for days now, and she looked like she was in so much pain. Even though Daddy told me she’d be fine, I was worried the entire time. “You’re both okay now, right?”
“Better than okay.” She kneels down and I see that she has him wrapped up in a bundle of blankets in her arms. My little brother who was inside of her stomach until now. “Say hello to your sister, Kouta.”
He looks so cute as he lays there with his pacifier in his mouth, bobbing while his eyes remain closed. It’s almost enough to make my heart flutter in my chest. “He’s so little.”
“You were even smaller when you were born.” Mommy tells me, smiling as she gently rocks him back and forth. I lean on my toes to get a better look at his sleeping face and it seems like he’s sleeping well. “Do you want to hold him?”
My head bobs fast enough that I almost get dizzy. Then she carefully holds him out and tells me to support his head. He feels warm and smells nice, but he’s a lot heavier than he looks. I’m afraid he’ll fall so I hold him close to me.
“Nh…” His little arms shift around, and he starts to move in my grasp. Not enough to make me drop him, but it scares me enough that I might. Then his pacifier falls out of his mouth and his eyes open as they look around, glimmering. Did I wake him up? “Naahhh…”
“Nonono, don’t cry.” I rock him back and forth like Mommy did. “It’s okay, Kouta-kun. It’s okay.”
He stops crying as he looks into my eyes, staring at them. Long enough for Mommy to carefully put his pacifier back in. It bobs up and down slowly as he keeps looking at me until his eyelids get heavy and he closes them again.
I let out a sigh, but my heart is fluttering. “That scared me.”
“He normally cries a bit more before he goes back to sleep.” Mommy brushes his hair softly. “I think he likes his big sister even more than he likes me.”
—and barely manage to free myself before it swallows me up entirely. The smell of new baby lingers in my mind longer than it should as I disconnect the Mind Jack before there were anymore surprises.
“Did it work?” Saegusa asks, looking at me expectantly with somewhat tired eyes.
“A little too well.” I make a note to refine it before giving someone else a straight-line into my brain like that. Judging from how she’s swaying a little in her seat, her first time seems to have thrown her for a loop as well. “How do you feel? PSI tends to be overtaxing the first time it’s used, from personal experience.”
“My head feels really tingly and a little foggy,” she admits, wearing a soft smile flushed with success. “But I really did it this time?”
“That’s right.” Realistically speaking, it’s likely she won’t be able to use it unless we get her comfortable enough using Trance to get around how long that took. It’ll be incredibly hard to think happy thoughts during our little trips. But right now she needed a win and she got it.
That was what mattered.
Letting her bask in success for the moment, I look to the clock and see we’ve moved ten minutes past the hour mark. “Since you’ve done it successfully and I don’t want to burn you out for your next part, why don’t we take a longer break this time?”
We return to the Parlor once the two hours are up and find the others are already there since they were closer.
Gai sits next to Himuro and watches as she levitates a playing card off the point of her forefinger. It’s wrapped up inside of what looks to be a sleeve of energy and spins slowly in place as she twirls her finger. I think it’s safe to say she’s gotten through the basics of how to use Burst then.
On the other hand, Makidera is slouching over the arm of the sofa like a wet rag. There’s practically no energy left in her body. The pragmatic part of me notes that might be a bit of a problem in the long run and so I force myself not to smile.
Saegusa naturally rushes over to check on her. “Maki-chan, are you okay?”
She sloughs off the couch and into Saegusa’s arms, whereupon she starts whining. “Everything is sore… and I’m starving…”
Himuro offers no pity to her plight, only cold words as she sets the playing card down onto the table. “She was reckless once she learned how fast she could move despite the warning she was given and now she’s paying the price.”
“But she can still train, right?” That’s really all I care about now that my thirst for petty revenge has been sated.
Ayako nods. “It shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Trance or Burst training since those don’t really require her to move around much. Though she’s probably going to be sore until tomorrow.”
“Ahh… They’re all so cruel to me…” She nuzzles her head against Saegusa to wring out some sympathy from probably the only person here who would give her it. “Yukicchi, you’re not going to turn on me too, are you?”
Saegusa awkwardly brushes her back softly and assure her she won’t before deciding to help her get into the Dining Room so that she can finally get something to eat. Himuro follows after her while inquiring about her own training efforts. She smiles as she tells them that she succeeded on the way out, leaving the three of us to talk amongst ourselves.
I start the conversation. “Well, I can guess from that Makidera shot past the starting line and hit a tree along the way, but what about the other one?”
“She asked a few questions, but she mostly handed it on her own,” Gai answers with a slight smile on his face. “She’s really amazing.”
“It’s safe to say they’ve both got talent in those fields to get it in such a short time,” Ayako muses. Then she turns to me. “What about yours?”
I don’t want to sugarcoat it considering the stakes. But I also don’t want the Track Trio to overhear by chance and undo my efforts. I send it to their heads with Telepathy just to be safe instead. ‘Keep quiet on this, but she wouldn’t have gotten it on her own. Her mind is filled with so many doubts that she’s basically repressing her own PSI unless she goes to a happy place in her mind first. We’ll need to see if that’s the case with all of them or just Trance, but we’ll probably have to spend several days working with her when we can just to get decent results.’
Ayako’s mouth forms a slight frown at that. ‘You didn’t have another… episode, did you?’
Her question and the uncertain look on her face tells me enough. I guess now is as good as a time as any to address this whole issue. ‘Gotou, give us the room for a bit.’
Once he’s gone, I sit across from Ayako and look her square in the eyes before addressing the elephant in the room. ‘You read my mind.’
‘I did,’ she admits. ‘I was worried about you and I just figured I could help better if I saw what was doing that to you.’
‘I appreciate the sentiment, but you shouldn’t have done that.’ I’m not happy that she did it at all, but my priorities are increasing our chances of survivability and yelling won’t help right now. ‘Have you’ve seen the same things in your dreams since then?’
She shakes her head. ‘No. I can’t even remember it very well, but I know there’s an impression of something that’s—’
I cut her off. ‘Don’t try to remember it anymore. Your mind wants to forget, so just let it happen and you’ll be fine. But don’t do that again or you might not be so lucky.’
She breathes out a sigh of relief inadvertently and then looks upset at showing weakness. ‘What was that?’
‘It’s complicated, but I’m dealing with it. I know my condition better than anyone else, and since I’ve had time to think about it I’ve come up with a way to possibly stop it from happening again. But don’t tell the others what you’ve seen.’
‘Shinji, you flipped out when we were under attack. It’s a liability that can get you killed.’
‘Mitsuzuri, you told me you trusted me not to read your mind. I kept my word and stayed out of your head because I didn’t want to betray that trust. Can’t you do the same for me on this?’
She bites down in her lower lip. Thinking. ‘Can you at least tell me how you plan on handling it?’
‘I’ve been studying a couple of different solutions in my free time even before now with cognitive psychology. I’ll spare you the details, but the gist of it is that what’s happening to me isn’t something that can be dealt with by modern means. The best and simplest option I had was using sleeping medicine until I gained PSI.’
It isn’t a lie. Not entirely. I’ve been looking into the problem since it started. It’s just that there was nothing I could do about it until now.
‘Since then I’ve been experimenting, and you’ve seen some of the results. I know I can use Trance to influence my perception of time, so self-hypnosis isn’t out of the question. I can read memories on a surface level, but what about removing them? Rewriting them?’
She points out the obvious. ‘That sounds dangerous. Issei can fix physical damage to the brain, but there’s no telling what will happen if something goes wrong with what you’re doing to yourself.’
‘That’s why I’ve been working on it slowly while my attention is on stopping the body-jacker next time. I just need to be able to do so without being harassed or questioned.’
Ayako doesn’t seem quite that satisfied since I’m being vague about it. But unless she has an alternative she really doesn’t have a choice but to accept it. Eventually, she sighs in surrender and crosses her arms.
‘…Just promise me you’ll be careful?’ She gives me a gentle look not unlike those my sister does, which is annoying in its own way. ‘I know I’ve been quiet on my own issues, but you still stuck your neck out and got involved with all of this. If it’s making this worse, then it’s my responsibility to help you deal with it and if that means butting in then I will.’
That’s probably the best vow of silence I’ll get from her, so I accept it and we shelve the topic there.
Eventually, the ‘Study Club’ comes to an end and the results are mixed with the Track Trio.
In terms of Trance, Himuro has some degree of talent while Makidera is an utter failure. The former managed to send out her thoughts without the level of help that Saegusa needed. The latter didn’t even manage with help so she’s probably as bad as Gotou when he started out.
As for Burst, Saegusa saw success under Gotou’s tutelage while Makidera only barely managed to create a construct at all. Both of them were behind Himuro in that department as well. The Bartender and Ayako will be busy with them, but its good that they’ve all got potential there.
Rise is where the situation is reversed. Makidera had the strength aspect down without question, but Himuro didn’t seem able to use it for more than a short burst. Saegusa had no luck whatsoever. It’s possible that they might be more proficient in using the Sense or Healing subcategories, but we didn’t have time to check and our resident experts were already out of town.
Since tomorrow is our day off from school, Ayako wanted to use that for a little more practice. But since Makidera has obligations with her family store and Saegusa has to look after her brothers, they wouldn’t be able to do training that day. Himuro and Gotou did have time and the pub was closed on Sundays, so Himuro would study under Ayako and Gotou under the Bartender since they wanted to get him used to his new ability.
As for me, I’ll continue to work on finding the Einzberns by visiting their castle. I should be able to walk well enough to get back there and see if there’s anything left that I can use to locate them. I’m not eager to go there but I can’t pass up the chance while I have it.
After that I’ll head to the Church to speak to the old man there. Father Dilo introduced himself in the hospital while I was being checked out and had my condition made clear to me. He wanted answers about what happened to the former priest and the Master who had been dispatched by the Clocktower for the war but vanished.
Since Tohsaka and I both knew who had the Command Seals for Lancer it didn’t take much effort to put two-and-two together. And since the asshole priest murdered one Master, the old man didn’t really question me much when I said the Old Worm went missing along the way. Since it was only natural that he’d be eliminated to get the grail, Dilo went ahead with the paperwork to get the Death Certificate for the Old Worm handled so I could get everything transferred to me.
Since the Church was supposed to handle the flow of information, while the Association and Einzbern cover the cost of collateral damage for the Holy Grail War, he might know where they’re located. I won’t try reading his mind, since its likely he knows magecraft, but asking won’t hurt. Even if he doesn’t know or won’t tell me, as long as I can find out who repaired the damages and see who footed the bill I can get somewhere.
I’ll find a lead that’ll point me to them eventually.
“Why my place specifically?”
I ask the obvious question for clarity. After all, if I’m going to tell them I don’t want them there, I need a plausible reason for it. So, it’d be better to get all the facts first.
“Well, your place is also as big as Tohsaka’s—”
“Bigger,” I say, correcting her.
Ayako goes along with it, if only to appease me. “—bigger than Tohsaka’s, it’s closer, and we don’t have to worry about being overseen or overheard if it’s done while your sister is heading the Archery Club’s practice. It’s the best place to both train them up and discuss things while the Temple is off-limits with the brothers gone, and without heading all the way out to Neko’s place.”
Well, she’s not wrong. The manor can easily fit all of us inside and, with the Old Worm long dead, we can practice in private for the most part. The additional time may prove beneficial, given we don’t know when we’ll be pulled back into the future either.
That and I’m sure it’d be thrown back in my face that I was acting hypocritical after telling them to make sacrifices for their training. Besides, I can use the opportunity to try and steer the training in a different direction since I’m calling the shots. An experimental approach to go along with the established ones.
“Okay,” I say, sitting forward. If there’s no getting out of it then I might as well dictate the rules. Resting my elbows on my desk and folding my hands in front of my mouth, I continue. “If you can agree to my terms, I’ll go along with it.”
Her brows rise in curiosity. “Name them.”
“First, we need to run it by Sakura. We don’t know how long it’ll take, and I don’t want her walking in while we have them tied to a chair and gagged like you had us.”
Makidera nearly chokes on her snack with a look of pure shock on her face. In contrast, Saegusa’s eyes are cast down at the table while there’s a red blush painting her face. Between them, Himuro is staring with a half-puzzled gaze. It’s clearly not something they expected to hear this morning.
“It makes more sense in context for their training, and it won’t apply for you three,” Ayako assures them. She follows with a slight glare towards me. ‘You worded it that way on purpose, didn’t you?’
I only shrug and continue on. “Anyway, you and I will tell her that we’re doing a study session at my home. Since the newcomers and I missed yesterday due to being incapacitated, she’ll buy it if we tell her that you want to try and catch us all up.”
It honestly didn’t matter as far as getting her permission went. In terms of authority in the household, I call the shots. However, we have enough issues and Ayako has some level of trust from Sakura when it comes to keeping me in check. So if she’s vouching that it’s her idea, then Sakura won’t be needlessly worried now or in the future when we use this… study club as an alibi for psychicer business.
Ayako nods in approval. It’s a completely rational course of action, so there’s no reason to lobby against it. “Okay. What else?”
“Second, no one is allowed to wander around besides the areas I tell them to. I am a private person by nature and there are some things that need to stay private. If anyone violates that, no matter who they are, then whatever goodwill I’ve shown will disappear and everyone leaves. Understood?”
The rule is for obvious reasons. The Library and Basement are locked up when not in use, but psychic powers make opening them up a breeze. Since there’s no oversight and I can’t watch them all, I need to stress that the consequences will be dire.
Consent is given to varying degrees from all of them. Not surprising, considering my goodwill is why these five are still alive and not something they’d easily to throw away for curiosity. That’s good enough for now.
I move onto the final condition. “Last is that we divide up the training into rotations between the three of us. I think we’ll cover more ground that way and neither of them will feel pressured about the progress of the others.”
I really hated that Gotou managed to get ahead of me during Burst training. That frustration did not help the situation and, if I hadn’t managed to get Telepathy out of it while he couldn’t, there might’ve been some issues working with him so well in the future. Or at least to the extent that we had.
These three have known each other since their First Year so the chance is minimal that there will be long-term issues. But better safe than sorry. Not to mention it I’ll only have to deal with one of them at a time, meaning that I can test different approaches when it comes to Trance training to expand my options.
Ayako closes her eyes and tilts her head in thought as she sips her drink. Considering it. Then she nods. “Okay, no harm in that either.”
Excellent. “Then I’ll handle the basics of Trance, while you handle Rise, and Gotou handles Burst.”
“Why me?” Gotou asks. He sounds surprised by his role, no doubt expecting to handle Rise instead.
I count off my reasons with my fingers. “Rise is the field where they’ll get the most use in terms of immediate survivability, so we need the most experienced teacher. Mitsuzuri has more control than either of us, so she can minimize the chance of accidentally injuring one of them while the Student President isn’t available. And, while I’m the best Trance user so I have to be the one to teach it, you caught onto Burst faster than I did.”
He still seems reluctant but nods his head slowly in agreement. “Fine.”
Ayako follows suit. “Fair enough. We’ll go with your approach and see where it leads.”
That settled, I address the Track Trio. “I’ll need an hour or so to make sure everything is in order after we discuss things with Sakura, so you three use that time to handle the matter of your club attendance. Mitsuzuri knows how to get to my place after that. Oh, and bring your own Lunch.”
I need the hour to go through every room of the manor and make sure that there’s nothing that could give away the fact that we were more than a wealthy family that had been around for a few centuries.
The Makiri came to Fuyuki and established themselves as one of the families that reside in the Foreigner’s District after it had been built in the late 1800s, after the country’s isolation policy was forcibly made to change. It’s possible that the Old Worm managed to sneak into the country before then. But he wouldn’t have been able to have the manor built to his specifications until the influx of foreign blood allowed him to buy the land and have the construction done.
Even so, he had the manor built so that sunlight couldn’t enter inside easily despite the number of windows. Only lanterns and later artificial lights provide illumination. Things that wouldn’t degrade his form quicker and leave him constantly hiding down in the worm pit below.
The building itself is large enough that there are entire rooms that haven’t been used since I was a child. Those rooms may have once been used to house guests or the like, but now their opulence was left to be buried beneath dust and time since we got rid of the housekeepers as an unnecessary expense. No sense in cleaning them if they weren’t going to be used.
I don’t bother checking Sakura’s room before I shut the door to it. No one should go into her room under any circumstances, but she does have a right to privacy. And it wasn’t as though she had something to hide. After all, she has no interest in magecraft.
Besides, of the guests coming over, only Gotou would be tempted by the mundane secrets of a woman’s room. And if he had the guts to do that then he would have braved asking Himuro out already instead of trying to get on her good side and winding up involved in all of this. Not that it hasn’t proven helpful for my long-term survival, so I guess I’ll call it a fair trade-off.
My room, on the other hand, requires a little work to be presentable. It’s not as clean as it could be, given my frequent night terrors and the latest bout of health issues I’ve been going through. But, just in case one of them is stupid enough to tempt fate, I won’t have to gouge out their eyes to hide the shame now.
I make sure to place a particular book inside the nightstand drawer, a bookmark between the pages to mark my progress. It’s the Old Worm’s journal from over a century back. Given he’s been involved with the Einzbern for some time now, I’m hoping it has the location of where their main castle is. It’s probably unnecessary, since it’s in German and I doubt any them could read a letter of it even if they trespassed into my room, but better safe than sorry.
I lock up the Library next. A good number of the books are in languages other than Japanese, so it probably isn’t necessary either in hindsight. The others are pretty ignorant of the world outside of Fuyuki, after all, and even I can’t read the Church Slavonic text that trace back to our family roots in Russia. But again, better than them discovering something they shouldn’t.
The Basement… is a nonfactor. Since Zouken’s death, it hasn’t been unlocked at all. Neither I, the manor’s owner, nor Sakura have any business with it anymore as neither of us has the desire or ability to continue the Art. It died when he died.
Once I finish the rest of the preparations, I change my clothes to more casual wear and head outside to wait for the others. The autumn wind blows and scatters brightly-colored leaves as I lean against the left column. It doesn’t take them too long to arrive after that.
Ayako leads the front and Gotou follows next to her, a bag from the bakery in Miyama in his hand. Makidera is behind them, looking upset as she rants to Himuro about something I don’t care about while flailing a plastic bag with what I presume to be take-out. Saegusa follows behind them last while holding a handmade lunch box.
Ayako approaches the gate and greets me. “Sorry we kept you waiting, Shinji.”
“I’ll let it slide since we managed to convince Sakura without any problems and will have plenty of time.” Though, to be honest Sakura didn’t argue against going to Emiya’s place, and he was apparently entertaining Fujimura tonight as well. So that works for us.
Gotou whistles as he looks up at the manor. “You could probably fit our entire class in here.”
I scoff at the suggestion. “I suppose it wouldn’t be a problem in the context of having too little space or need of supervision, but I’m not fond of guests. Emiya’s place would probably be better suited for that sort of thing.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a traditional manor, isn’t it?” Ayako muses. “The kind that has a wide-open courtyard and tatami with sliding doors. The type of place where you’d stay to feel like you took a step back in time.”
Saegusa tilts her head slightly at the description. “That sounds sort of like Maki-chan’s home.”
Makidera tenses up as we all look at her, bringing her hand to her face and covering it to an extent. It almost seems like something she’s not proud of. “My family just so happens to have a place that they got a long time ago and transformed into a store that sells traditional kimonos and stuff. It’s not that great.”
Saegusa didn’t see it that way though. “But I think you look really elegant while dressed in traditional clothes. It really suits you.”
“…I can’t see it,” Gotou says. “I mean, the Black Panther of Homurahara in a kimono is just difficult to process.”
I agree with him. Not for a lack of effort on my part. But the thought of the energetic monkey dressing regally in a high-class kimono is just… beyond my ability to rationalize. And that’s saying something considering all I’ve seen.
“It surprisingly works on her,” Himuro vouches. “I had her model for me once for a portrait that turned out well.”
“Is that so?” Ayako puts on a cheeky smile as she faces Makidera. “Then I think I might stop by and check out the selection. Maybe you can help me pick something out?”
“…It’s not like I dress like that because I want to,” she states, fist clenched as she looks away embarrassed. There’s some actual resentment in her voice. “I have to dress like that at home because my family is strict. The only time I get to wear the clothes I want is when I’m heading out for track or casual stuff, and that’s because it’s impractical to wear one during then.”
Surprisingly, Ayako’s expression changes from teasing to sympathetic. “My family has a long history when it comes to martial arts, so I don’t think that we’re different in that aspect. They’re pretty strict when it comes to things other than that for me and my brother, so if not for the fact that Issei’s brother vouches for me I wouldn’t have nearly as much free time as I do. Though, I’m pretty sure that my place is smaller than yours from the sound of it.”
“You guys have it tougher than me,” Gotou admits. He’s rubbing the back of his neck as if ashamed of that fact. “I mean, I just live in a 2LDK place closer to the residential area and my folks have ordinary jobs, so I don’t really have anything I can or can’t do as far as rules go.”
“A three-bedroom in my case, but it’s the same for me,” Saegusa adds with a nervous chuckle. “I guess we’re just typical then.”
…Huh, she’s right. Myself, a wealthy bourgeois. Himuro, the daughter of the mayor. Ayako, the daughter of a line of martial artists. Makidera, the daughter of famous merchants. Whereas these two are just… normal.
Well, as normal as a group of time-travelers with psychic powers can get. I stand up straight and push open the iron gate. “As riveting as this conversation is, we should get inside since we’ll need about six hours to feel everyone out. Follow me.”
I lead them through the front door and through the corridors to avoid one of them getting lost. If you aren’t used to the place it can get pretty confusing. Or so Emiya told me before our estrangement. I’ve lived here my entire life, so I know the place like the back of my hand and lead them all to the Dining Room first.
“This’ll be where you can eat when you get a break in the training, or before you start with Burst or Trance training with Gotou or myself.”
“What about before Rise training?” Ayako asks. Not surprising given she’s handling that lesson.
“You won’t have an issue, since you won’t be the one straining yourself. But its best if whoever you’ll be teaching don’t since Rise is the most strenuous physically and you don’t want to try that on a full stomach. By the way, Makidera will be the first one there.”
She gives me an incredulous look, remembering this morning no doubt. It pleases me. “Why do I have to do Rise first?”
“You would be working out with the Track Club around now under normal circumstances, right?”
“…Yeah,” she mutters under her breath.
“Then, since you’ve been doing that for the last three years, it’s likely a habit. I don’t think that you’d be able to sit still long enough to handle getting down Burst or Trance while so restless. So it’d be better to have you burn off all that excess energy, eat, and then focus on one of the other two while you’re digesting. I mean, don’t you do the same thing during your practice while pushing the other members of the club hard enough to leave them in tears?”
“Nnn…” I can tell from the look on her face she wants to come up with an excuse, but it’d be unfair to not push the expectations she places on others on herself. So she follows the group in silence until we enter the Parlor next.
I open the thick curtains, giving them view of the backyard. The tree and bushes are dense since the Old Worm had cultivated them to house his insects. It’d serve to give them some privacy. “You can take that door by the clock to get to the backyard. Our property extends for some distance and there’s an opening in the greenery behind the tree-line. It’ll be a good training ground for one-on-one practicing.”
I take the time to float a message to Ayako as well. ‘Mitsuzuri, you’ll be able to push her the furthest because of how competitive she is and her own work ethic. Use that to your advantage, because the other two probably won’t have that same level of stamina.’
She nods. “Okay.”
That established, I lean over to a table that’s in the middle of the room, wood with curved legs, and pick up a group of fifteen cards set out from the deck. “The parlor itself will be used for Burst training. From what we’ve seen so far, Telekinesis manifests in either the creation of constructs or manipulating the physical object directly. But given the trouble I had with the former, I thought I’d present the chance to explore both with playing cards since they’re light and malleable.”
Since I managed to pull that chain trick in the future, and was stuck unable to move for a day, I had the time to better grasp how to use Telekinesis. Rather than attempting to make a construct like Ayako, it was simpler for me to saturate the object. Then I could visual how I want it to react—programming it, for lack of a better term.
Holding them between my hand, I breathe slowly and concentrate my own Burst ability into them. The process of construction and rules are established in my mind and then impregnate that energy saturating the cards. Finished, I extend my hand out to put on a show.
The cards flew off to the table. Six formed a group of three triangles to create the foundation. Two formed shelves. Four more formed the second floor. One formed the second shelf. Two formed the roof. A house of cards standing in the middle of the table, still saturated with some of the energy I dumped into them.
“Gotou. Knock it down with yours.”
He blinks before realizing where I’m going with this. Then he pulls the same trick he did when we were tied up, forming a simple construct ball that hit the house of cards. They naturally topple over before flying back up into a neat pile in the center of the table as the rest of the energy is expended.
Satisfied, I turn to Himuro and address her next. “Start small with just getting a card to move from a distance and expand from that when you get comfortable with it. If you feel you’re getting a headache then stop and just wait for it to settle. Likewise, Gotou has a trip on you, so he can put any theories you might want to test into practice better than your current ability if you explain it to him.”
Himuro briefly adjusts her glasses as she observes the cards, her mind no doubt working out the basics of what I’ve done. She’s smart enough to probably work things out on her own, so I don’t think she’ll need nearly as much handholding as the other two. A student who’ll be quicker on the uptake will help warm Gotou up for the others in his role as a first-time instructor.
And, well, he likes her for some reason. So if I reward him for saving me by allowing him to spend time with her, it might help him get over his issues quicker. If not, I still tried.
Last, I face the third member of the group. “Saegusa, you’re with me first. We’ll be heading to a study on the other side of the manor, further away from here since you’ll need silence to be able to concentrate. During that time, I’ll mostly communicate with you through telepathy, so you can get used to it. It’s not as physically strenuous as Rise or as taxing as Burst, but it’s essential to survival so you’ll have to focus. Understand?”
She consents with a nod and as determined of a face she can make. “Yes, Matou-san. I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I ask.” Realistically speaking, regardless of what ability she gains, Saegusa’s a liability in direct combat due to how meek she is. I get the feeling she’d break if she had to kill anything during the next trip, so I’ll work her into a supporting role for the time being.
Looking at the grandfather clock, I take into account the time. If they have Lunch now, then we can begin around to 1:30 PM. “Okay, everyone who’s going to eat now feel free to do so. In thirty-minutes we get to training.”
“Are you really okay, Nii-san?”
The question coming from Sakura grates on my mind. Part of it stems from not wanting to repeat myself for the third time today. But the other part stems from the fact that walking such a short distance shouldn’t be so difficult.
Ayako brought Sakura to pick me up yesterday after school. She had been told we were hashing out the final details of the Training Camp for the Archery Club when I’d taken a bad fall on the mountain and they were keeping me to see if there was any serious damage done, since I insisted that I didn’t want to go to the hospital. The shoddy lie meant that I couldn’t stay any longer without drawing suspicion, so we went home.
Now it was the day afterwards and, while I can move better than before, walking fast just isn’t happening.
Sakura’s slowing herself down to keep pace with me. Another form of pity that I’m not fond of and she knows it. But it’s like she just can’t help it, so here we were.
“The lingering pain will pass in a few days and I’ll be able to move fine again, so stop worrying,” I tell her.
“But you shouldn’t be putting this kind of stress on yourself just to attend a half-day.”
She’s right. Or she would be under normal circumstances where I wouldn’t have made the effort. But, because the rest of the active Drifters in Fuyuki are attending school today, it makes for the most convenient meeting place for us. And, once school ended, I could head right back home to focus on finding a means of dealing with the more important issues—like finding the Einzberns.
I don’t know what why they played a part in the end of the world, but those were their homunculi. Since they’ve been involved with the Holy Grail War from the beginning, there’s no way the Old Worm didn’t have ample information on them. Once I pinned down a location, I’d send the Veterans to go deal with them.
And once we killed them in this time period, they’d cease to be a problem in the future. If we were lucky, it would be just the thing to save the world—breaking our contracts and setting us free.
The thought of being done with all of this was enough to make me smile until I noticed Sakura still staring at me.
“Sakura, you should be more worried about yourself. Arranging this Training Camp is the last thing Mitsuzuri and I will do as the leaders of the Archery Club. The rest is on your shoulders like it should have been, so you’ll have to assert yourself. You can do that much by now, right?”
Her expression falters at having the discussion become about her instead of me. But she schools her features and nods resolutely. “Yes. I’ll do my best, so please don’t worry about me.”
The talking tapers off there until we make it to the school minutes later. Out of all of the students walking about, Ayako stands out. She’s waiting against the wall next to the entrance with her eyes closed and her head leaning back. Did she fall asleep on her feet?
‘You shouldn’t sleep in front of the school.’
Her eyes snap open at the wake-up call and she addresses us. “Morning, Sakura. Shinji. Are you both doing well?”
“Nii-san is still having a little trouble moving his body, but other than that we’re both well,” Sakura says, giving her a slight bow in greeting. “Thank you for watching after him until now, Mitsuzuri-senpai.”
“If I’d been a little more careful it wouldn’t have come to that, so it was the least I could do for him.” Her eyes shift to me and a telepathic message follows. ‘I was speaking with Issei about something important. Head to the rooftop and I’ll explain it later with the others.’
‘Got it.’ I turn to Sakura briefly as I walk past them. “I’m not doing anything physical today, so you two’ll have to handle opening up the club.”
“Have a good day, Nii-san.”
‘Shinji… about Gai…’
I stop and look over my shoulder in Ayako’s direction. ‘What about him?’
‘He’s been a lot more reserved after what happened. To save you, he ended up having to kill one of the Soldier Taboo and he took it pretty badly.’
From what I heard, he developed a Burst that caused a layer of crystalline material to jut up from the bones in his arms and form a shell around them as he crushed the Homunculus’ skull. It was desperation act. He wanted to accomplish something, and his PSI just filled in the blanks.
‘He does realize they would have killed us if he didn’t, right?’
‘…It’s easy to say that, but….’ There’s an undercurrent of melancholy as she trails off. ‘Look, I’m just letting you know so that you don’t set him off by accident. We talked to him about it when we got back from the future, and he said he just needs to have some time to come to terms with it.’
‘Fine. I won’t say anything to him.’ I wouldn’t really be able to relate to him on the problem anyways since I had no issue with killing anything that tried to kill me. Better to leave it to the people who can do that. ‘Anything else?’
‘The Trio will be coming back after missing school yesterday, so—’
‘Right. Right. Be nice to them too.’ I start to walk again into the building and climb the stairs until I get to the rooftop entrance. Past the door I find six chairs and desks facing one another, arranged for us to take a seat and converse. Energy bars and canned drinks on top of each of them makes for a poor substitute for breakfast, but it’s better than nothing to start the day.
I take a seat on the left side and lean against the backrest while staring up at the sky, trying to get my thoughts together. We have a reprieve for now, during which we needed to train the Track Trio. But I also need some way of dealing with that body-snatcher before we get called to the future again.
Last time she managed to connect directly to my central nervous system, taking over my body and tampering with my memories without me knowing. I can’t presume that I’d be able to detect her the next time. And I can’t just rely on my PSI to reject the connection like before.
It was pure luck I made it back in time to be healed when the damage was linked to my brain. The brain acts as the anchor-point of the soul. I don’t know how our souls get shunted into the future, but if the brain gets severely damaged then it’s over.
Likewise, I didn’t understand enough about the method she used to develop a countermeasure. If it was a Trance or Mental Interference ability, I could probably find some way to shield myself from it. But only if I could detect it coming.
I raise my hand to the sky and just look at it. I can still feel some of that energy permeating me like in the future. Thrumming beneath my skin mildly compared to when in the future. If this is what they meant by PSI getting stronger over multiple trips, then it’ll be less strenuous to come up with something to help me out for the next time.
No one will make a puppet out of me. Never again.
The door to the rooftop opens with a loud sound. It causes me to fall out of my seat in surprise, leaving me to hit the rooftop with a painful crash. I suck in a sharp breath before glaring daggers at the one responsible.
Makidera’s face cringes for a moment before she looks away, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. “Ah, sorry about that.”
Remembering Ayako’s request, I force myself to breath out slowly and vent my agitation harmlessly as I get back to my feet. “Just take a seat.”
She hurries over to the other side, wisely putting distance between us while Saegusa comes out next. Her soft, brown eyes pass on a silent apology as she follows the first one to the other side of the table. Himuro is the last, giving me a slight nod in greeting as she takes her place between the two.
I return to my seat opposite Saegusa and grab the can of coffee on the desk. I need the caffeine to deal with the loud-mouth this early in the morning. Unfortunately, the milky taste ruins the coffee entirely and leaves me even more agitated as the uptight one starts a conversation.
“First, let me offer my gratitude for aiding us in that situation,” she states. “Had you and the others not been there, it’s very likely none of us would have woken up in the hospital. There is likely nothing we can do to repay that debt, but we shall make an effort if it is reasonably possible.”
“I’ll just ask you take this matter seriously so that you can keep surviving from here on. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been any different than if we left you to die there. Aside from that, I trust there weren’t any complications when you woke in the hospital, were there?”
“There were minor tests to try and grasp what happened to us after we all denied having done anything other than attend our club before we fell unconscious. Ultimately, the doctors labeled exhaustion as the likely cause since there were no more physical changes and made rather generic recommendations to prevent it in the future.”
“Those hacks even suggested that we quit,” Makidera loudly complains amid tearing open an energy bar. “Like that’s going to solve anything when it isn’t even the problem.”
“You know you’ll still probably be asked to sit on the sidelines. If not retire, right?”
I thought it was obvious, but it seems she didn’t expect it from the look of surprise that blossomed on her face. “Wait, what?”
“You passed out after a practice in the locker room on the same day that more than a few hundred died from similar cases around the whole of Japan, and people who have recovered from said passing out in the past have either committed suicide or died at a later date, despite not having any sort of commonality between them. The fact that the cause is still unknown has left people scrambling for answers, and since we can’t give them the truth without dying they’re not going to get them.”
“So the school will have to attempt to avoid accountability by minimizing the risk of it happening again.” Himuro nods in agreement. “Yes, I suspect before the day is done our club sponsor will be having words with us. Even if they didn’t, the matter of our survival means that we’d have to cut down or retire from the club in order to properly train our abilities.”
Indignant at having to give up something she’s worked hard for over the last few years, Makidera leaps up and points to me. “But that’s not fair! He and Mitsuzuri get to remain in their club, so why should we get benched when they don’t?”
“Our circumstances are different enough that it doesn’t even apply.” I’d been suffering from sleep deprivation and was manhandled by Ayako’s brother, while she wasn’t even on the school grounds when it happened. “If it’s any consolation, Mitsuzuri and I have basically retired from leading the Archery Club as of today under the excuse that my deteriorating health and her studies have been piling up. So, we’re in the same situation.”
She visibly looks somewhat relieved until Himuro gives her a subtle tap with her elbow that passes along the message that it’s not a good thing. She then clears her throat and tries to play it off. “Y-Yeah, it sucks for all of us.”
I tamper down on my urge call her out on being petulant. Partly because Ayako ask that I play nice today and partly because I had the feeling this was her way of trying to cope. After all, she was the closest of these three to dying and one of her ties to normalcy was taken away from her. Misery loves company.
So I move the conversation away from her and turn my attention to the last of the three. “Were you able to put your family’s worries at ease, Saegusa?”
“Oh… umm… I think so.” She fidgets a bit while gathering her thoughts. “I was actually surprised when I woke up to find my brothers all around me crying. Kouta said he was more upset about dinner and now I owed him a double day on both that and breakfast, but his eyes were the reddest.”
“Well, a child wouldn’t be honest with their feelings. But why were you surprised to find that they’d be worried? You basically take care of them when your parents can’t, so isn’t it natural that they would be happy to see you’re doing well now?”
“I was always worried about them, so I didn’t really take the time to think about how they’d feel if something happened to me. Just that I wouldn’t be able to take care of them if I was gone.” She looks to the desk while wearing a somewhat soft frown. “But… there’s still a chance that’ll happen the next time, isn’t there?”
I don’t sugarcoat my answer. “Until we change the future, or we reduce our count to zero, we’ll have to go when we’re called. The best we can do is make it so that you have the best chance possible of returning so that they don’t have to experience that sort of worry or pain anytime soon. It’s unfair, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
There’s a lull of silence at that. What happened before can happen again, and if they’re not up to the challenge then they’ll die. I won’t try to soften that fact because it’s the reality of the situation.
In an effort to raise the mood that I’d intentionally crushed down, Makidera puffs out her chest and says, “Don’t worry so much, Yukicchi. Just leave all the fighting to me and we’ll clear it in no time. I mean, if even Matou can become so tough after only one trip, then imagine just how much stronger we’ll be too?”
I’m pretty sure those words were just meant to be for Saegusa’s sake rather than insulting me, but that’s three strikes in less than five minutes. If I don’t get back at her somehow now it’d rankle me for the rest of the day. “Then you can take my place fighting the next time we get there.”
A short-lived look of pure shock dawns on her face. “Huh?”
“I’m not suited for the frontlines to begin with, so if someone more qualified steps up then I can focus more on a supporting role and handle the logistics to make sure everything goes smoothly. Mitsuzuri will probably be a bit harsh in her training to get you up to par in short order, but anything short of death can be healed away by the Student President easily enough.”
The way her body stiffens despite her effort to hide her nervousness gives away her façade, but her pride won’t let her back out so easily. “S-sure, leave it to me!”
“Excellent.” The way I see it, either she’ll fulfill the role suitable enough or die trying.
Himuro politely clears her throat before I can savor the moment though and pulls out her calling card out. “Can you show us how many points were deducted now?”
I pull out my own from my pocket and press it to my forehead. “Do like this and that’ll be enough.”
The other two pull their cards out to copy Himuro as she does so. Her eyes slightly broaden before she pulls it away from her head, no doubt experiencing the same sensation I did my first time. Then her brows compress as she bears witness to the corner of the card eroding into black and the number appears.
“Mine’s Forty-nine,” Makidera states with a frown while looking over to the other two. No doubt they had the same count. Then she looks over to me with an expectant glance, wordlessly pressing me for an answer.
“Forty-two. I lost five in this trip and three in my first trip.”
If I had to guess, losing five points was probably because of the nature of the mission. It started out as a Recruitment Mission, or at least it appeared to before it turned into an Extermination Mission. Not to mention we learned of Atlasia, who likely has the key to unraveling what brought that future about.
If anything, I think that we should have lost more points given everything that happened. But, for now, I’ll take what I can get.
Unfortunately, Makidera’s petulant side rears its ugly head again in the wake of the information. “Why did you lose more than us for your first trip?”
“Because Gotou and I had been given the task of escorting Mitsuzuri to the checkpoint after she ended up too exhausted to fight our first trip, whereas you three only barely managed to survive until we found you. It couldn’t be helped given how you and the other survivors didn’t know anything and weren’t capable of fighting back, but that difference between our circumstances still applies.”
She doesn’t look all that pleased at the explanation, but it’s the reality of the situation in the end.
‘Gai’s here now, so we’re coming up.’
The telepathic message from Ayako rings in my head. Theirs too judging from the reactions it caused. They’re not exactly used to having a voice other than their own in their heads, despite the explanation that I gave them in the future, so they’re a lot less calm about it and it takes them a minute to settle down.
That’s when the door opens and Gai steps out of the entrance first. He takes in the sight of all of us until his eyes meet mine. It makes him pause in place for a moment. Then he takes a breath and steps over towards my side of the table.
Ayako follows behind him, sparing him a sympathetic look before her expression shifts to one more amicable as she meets the gazes of the Track Trio and shuts the door. “Sorry for taking up your morning like this, but it’s important that we meet up when we can now. More so considering the circumstances aren’t better to start your training this afternoon.”
I… don’t like the sound of that. “Did something come up?”
“Issei and his brother will be heading up further north once school ends to discuss things with the Veteran I mentioned having worked Tatsumi’s group in the past. That means we won’t be able to use the temple or have someone who can heal us until they get back, while Neko’s place is on the other side of the city.”
Oh, come on. I could understand the Monk leaving, but the other had more use to us here since he provided us with a place to train, a method of getting there discreetly, and the ability to heal if any of us got injured. “Do both need to go right now?”
“If the circumstances were a bit different, no. But some of the people we saved got in contact with us, and we can’t have a situation like with Tatsumi and the others dying without any of us being aware. So Issei is going to use his power to set up a network and try to keep the peace between his brother and Ryougi-san, since the talk yesterday over the phone didn’t go so well.”
I can only see a handful of the people we saved following up with the training, so I don’t have much hope for a new wave of Drifters to help us out. But, if there’s an issue between the Veterans then that’ll be problematic. They’re the most experienced ones and the most important assets we have to deal with external threats.
“Do you suspect it’ll turn violent?” Himuro asks, inserting herself into the conversation in an effort to mine for more information.
Ayako crosses her arms and closes her eyes in thought for a moment. “Mmm… I don’t think it’ll get that far with Issei there. Supposedly the two have an easier time understanding one another and he has a level head. But if she’s the one there instead, it’ll be troublesome.”
“There are two of them?”
“No, I mean his other half,” she clarifies. “I never witnessed the change myself but from how Neko put it, Kaname Ryougi is two people in a single body and their specialty with PSI changes depending on which personality is in charge. The male personality specializes in Rise and Burst but is incapable of using Trance. The female personality specializes in Trance and Burst but is incapable of using Rise.”
“A split-personality?” Himuro brings her hand to her chin in thought. “From what you’ve told the three of us in the future about PSI, the power uses the brain in order to process and manifest the abilities. If there’s a preexisting mental disorder, I suppose it shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that such things could also affect how their power is expressed.”
I don’t discount the possibility either. Some magi do develop dual personalities to help them blend into society better or use magecraft in different ways. But that’s usually a form of self-hypnosis, not an actual disorder.
Ayako continues on regardless. “Whether he had it before he got there or suffered a breakdown afterwards isn’t something I know, but the male personality is the one they interact with the most and he doesn’t really help past teaching basics.”
It sounds to me like he’s apathetic to the situation of others because they’re not his problem, which is understandable under normal circumstances. But, since we need the survivors to pad out our numbers or these trips to the future will keep happening more frequently for our group, that’s going to have to be dealt with. “And what about the other one?”
“Terrifying enough that they feel the need to send two Veterans instead of just one,” she states. “Through a combination of Trance and Burst, she basically makes whatever illusions she projects into the target happen in real life. So, in theory, she can pretty much kill anyone she wants to with a thought.”
I don’t buy it. You can’t just wish someone dead and make it happen. There’s a system to these things, even if we can’t see it. Most likely this Ryougi person lied about her PSI’s true nature in order to conceal its weakness.
Even so, Himuro seems intrigued by the prospect. “Could it be some form of psychosomatic hallucination?”
Makidera holds up her hand to stall her from going further. “Hold on. A psycho-what now?”
“It’s when the brain believes something is happening to the body and that gets reflected. I’ve heard about an experiment where something similar happened with people who were allergic to poison ivy being blindfolded. One arm was rubbed with an ordinary leaf and told it was the poison ivy, while the other arm was rubbed with the actual plant and told it was harmless. Most of them ended up breaking out in rashes on the arm that was rubbed with the harmless leaf instead.”
“Maybe,” Ayako states. “Maybe, but the mechanics of her PSI is secondary to how she uses it. According to the others, when the male personality does the fighting he uses Rise to raise his physical abilities while wielding a sword and then Burst to fire it off as an extension of his swing, hitting their cores for a clean kill. But when they faced the Soldier Taboo, she’d come out and use that her PSI to torture them slowly with a smile on her face, rather than destroying them off right off the bat.”
The information unsettles the others to an extent, but I can think of a pragmatic reason for the torture while they stew on it. Most likely it’s conditional on using Trance to project the hallucination and using the brain’s response to have the Burst make it a reality. That limits it to the Homunculus, since they’re capable of actual thought and human understanding, and the act of building up is a means of strengthening the effect of her PSI until she can kill with a thought.
Or she could just like relishing the act of killing something that looks humans. Or both. They’re not mutually-exclusive.
Either way, Himuro doesn’t accept the information without scrutiny and makes it known. “Are you certain that information isn’t being exaggerated by biases?”
“Well, there might be some, since its clear Neko and the others don’t exactly like how hands-off he is,” Ayako concedes. “But I don’t think they’d lie given the seriousness of the situation, so I’m taking the warning seriously and passing it along.”
“Umm… c-can we change the subject?” Saegusa asks, a slight tremor in her voice. This is clearly not how she saw this morning’s discussion going and now she’s uncomfortable.
“I guess we did get a little off-topic in how it directly affects us,” Ayako admits. “Anyway, since they’re gone we need to address the issue of where we’re going to be teaching you until they get back on Monday evening, so…”
Her eyes turn to me as she trails off. Then she smiles in a way that tells me I won’t like what’s coming next.
“Shinji, you don’t mind if we use your place this afternoon, do you?”
Why are homunculi here?
That question turned over in my head again and again after Gai and I retreated back inside of the building while Ayako went to deal with the Taboo. Nemesis Q’s declaration had riled everyone up to an extent, which meant that everyone else was moving about now. Fortunately, I managed to pull myself together before we walked through the door, so at least I entered under my own power.
Still, I wasn’t really in the mood to deal with anyone, so I let Gai handle the crowd-control while I sat off to the side and went over the information I could recall. I had studied for the Holy Grail War, so I knew about the Einzbern a bit. They were a family that created the Holy Grail, while the Tohsaka’s provided the land and the Matou provided the control system. They were always guaranteed to have one of their own in the war, and while that albino brat was on the short side, the other two resembled the one Ayako had just pointed out to a greater extent.
Homunculus were artificial beings that looked humans, born complete from the start and lived short-lives within a narrow timeframe as a result. We don’t know how far we are into the future, though it must be far ahead given the drastic change in landscape and the advance weathering on the structures. But the most likely reason for the world being in this state is because of something to do with the moonlit side of things with their presence. The fact that homunculi can be found working to some extent with the Taboo also means that their creators likely share some sort of alliance, which means that the ones responsible have a potential army of artificial creatures under their beck-and-call.
I try to drown out the noise of the people around me to answer that question. They were all eager to go back to the Present. To go back home.
The Salaryman was pacing back and forth, anxious. I could tell he wasn’t coming back, so I’ve already written him off. Couldn’t care about the three idiots sitting near the front either, who still thought it was a movie or game or something. They’d learn or die. And I still wasn’t sure what the deal was with the creep with scraggly hair that was now sitting on the counter.
The Track Trio were sitting off by themselves, talking and remaining in their own world. Well, Makidera was doing a lot of the talking anyway. The others were just listening to her go on about what she would do with her power, intending to use it to give her an edge on the track. Not that I’m against it—after all, if you’ve got to be stuck with doing this you may as well use the power how you see fit. However, I get the feeling that the Student President would object to that.
As for the others in the backrooms… they’re Gai’s problem.
I close my eyes and turn my thoughts inwards, questioning again how the world itself was even allowed to get this badly ruined. Let’s assume the current situation was some Magus’ scheme went off the rails… or, more terrifyingly, planned. I don’t see how it would lead to any family attaining the Root of All Creation, so I want to believe it was more accidental than anything. But there were supposed to be organizations to prevent this sort of thing.
So, what happened to them?
“Ummm…” Before I can think on that dour topic further, Saegusa’s voice reaches my ears. I crack open an eye to see that she’s standing in front of me. She’s not looking directly at me, instead her gaze is to her fingers that are in front of her stomach, clasped together.
“What is it?”
“You, um, looked pale. So I thought I’d ask if you were okay?”
“That’s goo—” Her words turn into a startled shout as the ground shakes again, no doubt due to the Taboo still running around. She ends up half-falling into the seat across from me on the opposite couch, leaving the table between us.
The rumbling settles and she sets her hands on the table and takes a moment to calm herself down. “…S-So, do you think that Mitsuzuru-san will be able to deal with it on her own, if both you and Gotou-san are here?”
I shrug. “That worm thing isn’t only big. It was spitting out some kind of digestive fluid that melted the ground, making it easier for it to go through. There’s no telling what that would do to us if we made direct-contact with it, and she’s the only one who can deal with it at range.”
Now that I think about it, what was the purpose of that thing? If it was artificially-created, it had to have been done for the sake of being useful—logically speaking. Considering half of Fuyuki was covered in that sand it leaves in its wake, and it works on the manmade structures too… terraforming, maybe?
“I… see…” She’s fiddling with her thumbs now. The girl is clearly uncomfortable talking to me, and with the situation in general, so I don’t see why she feels the need to push herself by dragging it out. “I hope she’ll manage soon.”
“I’m sure she’s working as fast as she can.” More so considering the homunculi lingering about. If they were anything like the ones in that castle though, Ayako could take them easily from what I’ve seen of her fighting… at least, if she didn’t see something too traumatic in my head.
I know what kind of effect it has on me, and I have exposure to it. Before getting dragged into this, I doubt she’d witnessed anything as horrifying as human nature at its worst. She’s probably going to tell the Veterans what she’d seen, so I’ll need to think of a more fitting excuse for her and the others by the time we get back.
“Ah—I didn’t mean to be rude or anything!” Saegusa hastily tacked on in response. A nervous reaction more by habit, considering I didn’t showcase any anger or annoyance in my voice. “I’m just worried about things back home. It’s been almost an entire day here, so it must’ve been at least a little while back in our time. Someone must’ve found our bodies and taken us to the hospital, so our families must be worried we won’t wake up…”
“As long as you’ve got insurance, you can frame it as trying too hard during practice as an excuse and then check out right away. If you don’t have insurance, then just foot the bill to me and I’ll take care of it.”
The money isn’t a problem for me, all things considered. And better to handle something as trivial as that than having her worried when I needed her to survive. The more of us, the better off we’ll be—whatever power she gets out of it.
“All of us are insured, but thank you for the offer.” She tries to smile meekly with her head still angled down, looking up to me with those brown eyes of hers. “Still, I hope it isn’t too late in the evening. I don’t want them to be up late worrying about me, and I did promise to make Kouta-kun whatever he wanted for dinner…”
Her smile falters as she trails off and looks back down at the table. “It’s still hard to believe that this is our future. I never really thought much about what it would be like since I was focused on the present and taking care of my brothers. But… this’ll be their future one day, won’t it?”
“That’s what we’ve been drafted to try and prevent.”
“I understand that. But…” She sucks in a sharp breath and closes her eyes tight before she can start to cry. “Umm… your sister… if something happened to you, what would happen to her?”
I sit upright as the pieces fit together. She wants some kind of reassurance from someone who actually knows what’s going on. That means either me or Gai. And while Gai might be more sociable, he doesn’t have a sibling.
Worse, considering she overheard what happened to Kitano, she has some clue as to what it’ll be like for those who are left behind if she dies. “So, you’re afraid that if you die here it’ll affect your entire family, right?”
She nods her head meekly. “I… I don’t want my brothers to have to live in this sort of future. So, I want to change it for them. But, I’m afraid that if I die here… if I die then I won’t be able to help them, or see them. I’m… I’m scared.”
From how she acts and what she says, I gather she’s basically a dutiful daughter who looks over her siblings. Her family dynamic is completely different from mine, so that’s not something I can really relate to. Then again, it’s not like she needs to know that.
“Saegusa, that’s how you’re supposed to feel,” I tell her. “There’s no shame in not wanting to die because you’ve got other priorities. After all, I wouldn’t be here if I had that same option.”
I don’t think any of us would, barring those who felt like playing the hero just because they could. And heroes tended to die young. I didn’t have any intention of doing that if I could help it.
“You can think on all of that once we get back,” I continue. “But right now, your focus needs to be on simply surviving. If you try thinking on everything else, you’ll collapse under the pressure and be no good to anyone—and that could cost someone else their lives. Understand?”
“I… I’ll try.” She nods her head slowly and smiles again, which only further affirms that she’s like a puppy. “Thank you, Matou-san. You really are a nice person.”
Not nearly as much as you think. It’s really more that we can’t have her breaking down now or in the future. Either way, she’s satisfied with the conclusion and gets up to leave.
One problem down. Now back to this mess of a future. The easiest way to deal with it is to find out as much as I could about the ones responsible and… then what? I had no way of proving any of it, and even if I did bring it to someone who could do something, which was a stretch since the Matou had no connections to those places, there was no guarantee they would—not to mention we’d probably end up being turned into lab-rats.
Which means we’ll just have to kill them ourselves. Not a surprise. What good were powers like Ayako’s if not for that purpose? What was the point of conditioning us to kill things that looked human like the homunculi if not to ready us to kill the ones responsible?
Nemesis Q’s tools of war. Cruel, but to the point. The Veterans and Ayako have no delusions about they’ve become, so if I can get the proof I need then they’ll act on it to bring this nightmare to an end and get on with their lives. In other words, his most-effective weapons were already in place and battle-hardened—they just need a direction to be pointed in.
And outside of an actual magus or myself, how many would recognize homunculi for what they were? That had to be why Nemesis Q dragged me in. But, assuming that was the case, why did it not summon actual magus into the future to deal with it?
What am I missing?
I try to think on it further, but my train of thought stalls when the building shakes again. It’s not only closer in time to the last time, but somewhat more violent as well, knocking Saegusa onto the ground and leaving the others more startled than before. Just how long would the building last at this rate?
BANG! The door to the backrooms opens and the red-haired guy… Inui, I think he was called, emerges. He appears pale as he looks up at the ceiling before fixing his eyes to the front door and, not quite running, but hurrying over to it.
“It’s not safe to go out—” He’s out the door before I can even finish. Tempting as it would be to let him go, I rise to my feet and reach out telepathically to the person who should have been watching him and the others in the back. ‘Gotou, what happened?’
‘I have no clue,’ he states as he peeks his head out of the door. ‘I thought he was a little bothered by all the shaking, but after that last one he got this look on his face and took off. It reminded me a bit like you when you first came up to the temple.’
That could be a pain to deal with if that’s true. Still, we didn’t block off the exit so it’ll be troublesome if he gets picked up by one of them. Plus, last quake had riled up more than him. The Salaryman looked like he was ready to bolt next and, as much as I hate the thought of playing counselor for other people when I’ve got problems of my own, I’d rather deal with one person than a group.
‘I’ll go bring him back inside before he gets spotted. Keep everyone calm.’ Leaving out as he plays babysitter again, I walk down the corridor and find Red Hair just past the mouth.
He’s leaning against the wall with one arm outstretched, having finished vomiting when he spots me. He brings his hand to his head and shakes it. “I just need a minute, okay?”
“Look, I can tell from a glance that something about being in the building while its shaking triggered you, but you’ve got to come back inside.”
He naturally gets defensive. “I—”
I cut him off. “I’m not going to pry into whatever happened, but we spotted other Taboo following along with the worm and they’re stronger than me or Gotou, which is why we’re inside. If they spot you while Mitsuzuri is thinning them out, everyone is as good as dead.”
He looks down at the ground at that, silent in thought as clenches his teeth. Then he exhales sharply, straightens himself out, and turns towards me. But instead of taking a step forward, he takes one back as his gaze falls on something behind me.
I stick my head out of the corridor and into the streets to look in that direction.
Then my heart and lungs stop.
…Two homunculi are there. Both females with short white-hair and ruby eyes, dressed similarly to one another. One is hefting with ease a halberd that a grown man would struggle with, while the other is seemingly unarmed but has a robotic stare that seems to peer into my soul.
Just like the two from the castle.
The moment that thought comes to mind my stalled heart hammers at my chest as the world starts to warp. Blood pounds in my ears. Sweat beads on my face. Limbs go numb and tingle. It’s starting again. “Ah…ahhh…”
The unarmed one extends her hand out in our direction and my instincts start screaming for me to move. But I can’t feel my arms and legs. They’ve gone numb from the fear. I’ll die if I have another panic attack here and now, so I have to do something. But I can barely move anything except my mouth and teeth—
A sickening and wet sound of meat being torn joins pain flaring through my body as blood fills mouth. But it also brings clarity of mind, driving away the warping of the world. I spit out the blood and chunk of my inner mouth that I’d bitten off in desperation and fight through the pain to focus on my PSI so that—
—I can slow down my perception of time long enough to assess the situation. We were spotted and Ayako said they had some kind of hive mind so… well, hiding is out of the question. They all know we’re here now, meaning if Ayako hasn’t killed the majority off we’ll be overwhelmed soon.
Right, so I better call back Ayako. I can’t broadcast since I don’t know the distance and the atmosphere will erode the message, so Mind Jack it is. I don’t know the energy cost, but as long as it’s set to find her then it’ll seek her out and she’ll probably be able to deal with this at range.
But right now, I need to do something about these two before they kill us. The one pointing towards us has fired some kind of ring of Burst energy towards us while the one with the halberd is getting ready to move from the way her legs are positioned and her grip on her weapon.
I shift the Rise energy from my mind to my arms and legs to—
—grab Red Hair by his arm with my good hand and pull him behind me as I lunge forward. He falls down the small set of stairs leading down the corridor while I get out of range of the flying ring that’s roughly a foot around. It hits the building where he would have been and everything within that foot diameter abruptly gets destroyed—hollowed out entirely to reveal the interior of the club that we’d taken shelter in.
I can hear screams coming through. Did it go all the way through to the back? Did it hit someone? I can’t waste time wondering that, so I broadcast in that general direction. ‘There are two enemies! Get into the backrooms and keep your heads down!’
Then I send out the Mind Jack to find Ayako. The sensation of the cord being woven from the energy permeating my body and then flowing out feels grating. But becomes a secondary concern as I use Sense-Rise in time to hear a footfall by the mouth of the corridor—
—and, under my lengthened perception of time, I see the other one has already made it to the entrance, coming out of a leap. Damn, she’s faster than I thought to have crossed the distance in that span of time. Was she one of the stronger ones that Ayako mentioned?
I reach into my sling for the blade of Ayako’s naginata resting against my injured arm to do something when my sharpened sense of hearing picks up the words “Straße gehen” coming from the one at range. Shifting my gaze in that direction shows she’s launched another ring of destruction. A larger one that forces me to leap to the right as—
—time goes back to normal and the ring erases the section of asphalt I was standing at. The meter-sized diameter gap runs between me and the armed homunculus that disappears down the stairs, out of my view. Damn it, I won’t be able to reach her before she gets into the building to kill them all.
The sound of metal being struck rings out and a white figure is sent flying from below and into the air. It’s the homunculus, rebuked by some great force considering the dent in her steel halberd being held horizontally in defense. She ends up somersaulting backwards before landing in a roll and getting back to her feet in front of me as Gotou emerges from below.
I grasp the makeshift handle of the naginata-turned-knife and pull it free, cutting through the cloth that makes up the sling for my broken arm. There’s a slight pain as the arm falls free, though not as much as the pain in my mouth. But I ignore them both as I bring the knife around for the chance to cut off her head.
She twists her body and hands, bringing the section of her halberd that was dented around to intercept it. The blade slides off it with a grating sound, deflected. She then leaps back as I flick my wrist and bring it around from the other side, removing herself from danger and staying there for a moment to assess the situation from her end.
I try to speak, but the blood pooling in my mouth nearly chokes me. So I broadcast my demand to her as I spit the blood out in front of me. ‘Where are your masters hiding, Homunculus?’
A slight shift in her expression shows she heard me and her eyes glance over to the Mind Jack flowing out of my back. But her expression goes flat as Gotou rushes towards her. She jumps into the air as the German aria from the other one reaches my ears and I see the incoming attack, flying towards us in the blind-spot created by the armed doll being in front of me.
It’s slower than the last one but bigger, covering enough space that Gai will be caught in it as he lands. He might be able to strengthen his body to shrug off blows from physical attacks, but against that Burst attack it was too big of a gamble to risk. So I intercept him with a lunge that leaves us both falling in the center of the street just in time as the sidewalk and a segment of the building behind us were destroyed.
We get back onto our feet, only to find that they aren’t attacking us again just yet. The ranged one has her arm outstretched to fire again, but she hasn’t muttered a word. The one with the halberd is holding her weapon off to her side, resting the butt of it on the ground.
“Where is Atlasia?” she demands of me in a firm tone, standing maybe ten meters away. “If you surrender her location, we will spare your lives.”
“You shouldn’t have read her mind like that, Shinji. It’s one thing to do that to a potential enemy, but some things are private.”
In the silence of the room only the two of us occupy, Ayako chides me while wrapping the splint around my arm after I explained what I had seen in the woman’s memories. Being lectured was not something I wanted to deal with, even under normal circumstances. But I tolerate it in silence with my back resting against the headboard of the surprisingly comfortable bed, which only needed a good dusting despite years of disuse.
Part of that tolerance is because it was Ayako doing it, who gets a pass for a variety of reasons—one of which being that she was significantly stronger than me. The other part is that she’s controlling the distribution of both the pain-killers and sleeping medicine. Both of which I need right about now. It just isn’t smart to get on her bad side there.
Well, at least Gai isn’t here to strain my tolerance. He’s stuck on babysitting the other survivors at the moment as they eat our food. In all honesty, I still think we should have minimized what we’d given them. Or at least reserved the majority for us, since we’re the ones who had to do the fighting.
But no. Ayako had him divvy it out to them all equally while I held my tongue for the reasons above. Hopefully Nemesis Q will pop up and declare the mission done before we starve.
“As for what happened, if I had to take a guess, the fact that you actually experienced her emotions is probably due to your abilities being amplified while in the future. Instead of overloading your senses like before, you probably ended up diving too deep before you knew what you were doing. Stick with what you’ve been doing for now, and we’ll test your limits when we get back, okay?”
“Fine.” I didn’t plan to experiment at all to begin with here. It was only because they had pressed me that I even used the Mind Jack in the first place. I have no desire to risk drowning in someone else’s misery when I have my own to contend with.
Ayako nods, both in satisfaction at my response and her own handiwork as she finishes tying off the splint. “As for your arm, Issei will have to see to it after we get back. If you had a few trips under your belt then your Rise might be balanced enough so that you’d heal faster. Then again, at least we have that option. The others won’t be so lucky if they get any serious injuries.”
“Speaking of them, what will we do with them? We can’t feasibly train them all with how far away they live in the past.”
Ayako brings her hand to her chin and closes her eyes as she mulls it over for a moment. “Makidera, Himuro, and Saegusa will work under us, but the others… most likely, we’ll see about having the Veteran who was helping Tatsumi’s group take over teaching them the basics. At least until Neko and the others set something up for them in the long-run.”
“If those guys and this Veteran are in contact, why didn’t he inform anyone of what happened before we got called back? We could have been walking into whatever killed the last group and had been clueless until it was too late.”
Her hair sways as shakes her head slowly and she opens her eyes. “He’s a far more distant teacher than Neko and the others, under the belief that holding their hands is pointless since everyone develops differently over time. I think they actually had a fight about that once, so he usually doesn’t contact us first. It may even be possible that he didn’t know that they were dead.”
That’s… going to complicate things in the long run. Ideally, it would be best if at least a third of them survived so we didn’t get called in to deal with another group’s mess like this. But if this guy is that neglectful, then I suppose our Veterans will have to manage somehow.
Ayako rises to her feet and stretches. Given that she’s removed her coat and torn her shirt for the makeshift splint, it displays more of her lower abdomen than proper. “You know, you weren’t actually all that far off on what you told Tatsumi’s sister.”
I look off to the side before she accuses me of sneaking a peek like before. “How so?”
“He was in the camp of people who believed they were doing something grand to save the world. That we were chosen and given this power to do so. It was oddly optimistic coming from a guy near his thirties, but considering the circumstances he was reliable.”
He sounds more annoying than anything, but there must be something to it if Ayako speaks highly of him and he had more than a few trips under his belt. “What exactly was he capable of?”
“He created bird constructs out of either Trance or Burst Energy depending on the situation. The ones that were Trance-made could pass through solid objects and be used as scouts by looking through their eyes. The ones made of Burst could take on different properties to attack Taboo, like becoming fire or electricity, or made big enough to be ridden on. He was also capable of paralyzing people and Taboo with a glance to a certain extent, but his ability with Rise was horrible.”
In order words, he basically creates familiars to fight and spy for him. Between that, the paralysis that was likely similar to a Mystic Eye of some kind, and his Rise being horrible, he likely fought at range or acted as support. “He sounds like he would have been useful to have around for gathering information.”
“He was.” Her tone shifts, becoming softer as her fingers curl up into fists. “And yet, Nemesis Q didn’t go out of its way to help him. It deemed him useless, otherwise it would have called me in and I could have done something. But no—instead it sends us on a recruitment drive to replace the losses, not even considering that the last thing Tatsumi would have wanted was for his sister to be pulled into this after seeing him like that.”
I can’t really say anything to that. If someone dies here, my guess is that their soul doesn’t return to their body in the past. They simply drop dead to all those unaware. For his body to be in that condition meant that whatever did it closed the distance and tore him apart just as he was being called back.
The silence stretches as Ayako stews on the loss of a comrade until she releases the tension with a deep breath and walks over to the door. “I’m going to go check on the others now. Get some rest.”
“Just remember to cover up or you’ll give the wrong impression to those survivors.”
She looks down to see her exposed midriff in mild surprise. Had she actually forgotten about that in light of everything? Either way, a telekinetic hand grabs her jacket and pulls it to her as the door shuts after her.
And just like that, I’m alone with my thoughts in the room. The previous conversation drags them back to that woman whose mind I delved into and the flood of emotions from when she saw her brother in that state. It was a poignant sorrow that still ate at me, unlike the fear-tainted terror for oneself that came from witnessing or being the target of a human malevolence that wafted off the memories from the grail.
It felt… pure, in a way. Such a raw emotion that made my chest ache and sucked all the hope from me. She had truly loved her brother and his death had stricken her in a way that I really couldn’t relate in terms of grief.
My father was drunkard and my mother had been disposed of shortly after she’d given birth to me. As for the Old Worm, I had Gilgamesh put him down without a second thought after he refused to acknowledge me. None of their deaths moved me in the same way that her brother’s brutal death had sank her heart, and as tempting as it would be to just separate it as a woman being emotional, the question lingers in my mind for a moment too long and a stray thought comes up:
Would Sakura grieve for me like that if I died here?
…A whisper in the back of my head tells me that, as forgiving as Sakura was, our relationship was far too tainted for the sorts of depth they had. Even if a part of her did grieve for me out of misguided compassion, she would undoubtedly feel some sort of satisfaction in it. Even if she’d deny with all of her heart, she would feel some vindication or justification for my death.
After all, I’ve done her wrong in ways that literally haunt my nightmares now and Sakura was still human. Rational and irrational, all humans bore the seeds of evil within them. Even the kindest person.
If they didn’t then they couldn’t be considered human.
And, upon drawing that dreary conclusion, I down the pills and lay down on the bed.
‘Shinji! Wake up!’
“—ggh!?” I awake startled. The horrors clawing at the fringes of my fraying consciousness retreat as the world bleeds in unfocused. Tears run from the corners of my eyes, stinging as a blurred shape gains definition.
My first sight of the day is Ayako’s eyes intensely peering into mine. She’s bent over from next to me, her fingers digging into my shoulders from the bracing grip she had. Her lips are pressed thin as her voice touches my mind again. ‘Are you awake now?’
“Yauu—” Pain claws at my throat when I try to speak. I switch to Telepathy as I sit upright. ‘How long was I screaming?’
“A while now.” The tension in her body slowly melts as she releases me and reaches over to the nightstand for the half-finished bottle of water that I had been drinking before I went to sleep. She hands it over and continues to talk. “You wouldn’t respond when we tried shaking you awake, and I had been calling for you telepathically for a while now. What was that about?”
I wait until the water eases my throat before I answer, since I didn’t think she’d let me screaming for that long go unanswered. “I suffer from night terrors on and off.”
A frown forms on her face. “Since when?”
“A few months ago, after I was hospitalized. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, so I just take sleeping medicine and move on.”
“Even if you say that, it’ll be a liability on any mission where we’ll be here long enough to need sleep,” Ayako points out as she flops down on the side of the bed next to me. “We may actually have to gag you in that case.”
“I’d prefer it if we just got back to our own time period f—” My words die as the building rattles. The walls and ground shake enough that we can feel it, with dust falling from the ceiling and sprinkling down upon us.
Gai asks the obvious question. “Was that an earthquake?”
Ayako rises to her feet and heads towards the door. “I’ll go check. You two stay here and keep an eye on the others. If they notice the shaking they might start panicking, but just assure them that they’ll be fine until I get in contact.”
I watch her leave and then sigh, knowing it wasn’t over. It’ll probably come up again, so now I have to think of an excuse for the nightmares. What did they have me hospitalized for again? I try to think of something when I notice Gai staring at me, hand on his chin in thought.
“Does these nightmares have something to do with that freak-out you had on the mountain?”
“…Drop it, Gotou,” I warn him, crushing the now-empty bottle in my hand. “There’s nothing anyone can do to help me, so there’s no point in bringing it up.”
He shrugs but doesn’t say anything, so I guess he gets the point.
Then the walls start shaking again. It was more noticeable than before this time. If it gets worse then we’ll have to abandon this building or risk being buried if it collapses. But the shaking feels like its reminding me of something. I think I’m on the verge of remembering it when I feel Ayako’s voice touch my mind.
‘Gotou, Shinji, get out here now.’
Gai heads towards the door, catching from her tone that these aren’t just earthquakes.
I take my time since there’s not enough alarm or urgency to indicate we’re under attack. Still, it can’t be good and I don’t have the full use of my arm that got broken yesterday either. If it came down to a fight, I’d be at a disadvantage.
Well, my ability allows me to work without needing to be close either way. So I can babysit the survivors if need be while they handle the fighting. If whatever it is they’re dealing with is tough enough to kill them, we’re all dead anyway since nothing I can do would change the outcome.
Just to be safe, I grab what’s left of her naginata from the nightstand and slip it into my splint. The flat of the blade is angled so that it doesn’t cut the cloth or skin, but I can grab what’s left of the handle if needed and use it as a makeshift knife. That done, I head out the door after Gotou.
Inside of the corridor, I see that the shaking did wake the others up. Since there were only so many room and beds, it was easier to station those who knew each other into the rooms together and let them sort their own business out, though we made some exceptions. That Kitano woman who was the sister of the guy Ayako knew was instead paired off with the Nami girl.
Of the survivors who were in the corridor, one was that tough guy who caused problems, one of the three girls from the high-school group, and Himuro. The latter in particular stands with her arms crossed and the same stern face she normally has as she questions him, no doubt on behalf of Saegusa, whose head is sticking out of the opened door to their room.
I leave him to it as I open the door to the bar section. Given the number of people and the number of rooms, some of them had to sleep out here using the sofa. The three idiots were among them, along with the Salaryman, Red Hair, and the creepy guy.
Only the latter was awake though, laying on the bar counter with his head propped up by his elbow. He gives me a lazy wave before covering his mouth to yawn. Then he closes his eyes as though to just listen to his surroundings.
I brush it off as just being weird behavior on his part and head out the front entrance. The rubble blocking the entrance has already been pushed aside. I take a step forward only for the ground to shake again, costing me my balance and leaving me to brace the wall with my good hand until it stops and I can clear the corridor to reach the street-level.
Ayako’s mental voice guides my eyes upwards, to an adjacent building. She’s standing on the rooftop, her gaze set out in the distance. I can’t quite make out her expression without enhancing my vision with Rise-Sense, but when I do I find her lips fixed into a frown and eyes narrowed.
Gotou comes out of the building then and comes to a stop next to me. He doesn’t bother with using Telepathy and just shouts, “What’s going on?”
‘There’s a large Taboo here that’s knocking down the buildings. It’s taken out a good chunk of the city ruins already.’
Ah, that’s what I was forgetting. I knew something was knocking down buildings at the edge of the city, but not what. Since it wasn’t important at the time and I’d just gotten through having my arm broken, I pushed it aside.
‘Shinji, connect us and I’ll try to send a mental image of it.’
I create two Mind Jacks connected to the base of my skull and send them both out. They connect. Immediately, Ayako starts sending what she’s seeing through it to me and I pass that information to him.
Her vision is sharpened, as if she’d zoomed into the distance. A building is falling down, concrete and steel collapsing in a domino as something moves within a cloud of stone dust while upturned asphalt and earth marks a trail. A shrill, inhuman roar follows as her vision sharpens even more to focus on the figure in detail.
“It looks like a giant worm,” Gotou says aloud, as to not interrupt the information transfer from me to him.
Calling it a worm is something of an understatement. It’s long enough that each segment was the length of a train car, with round protrusions that leaked some kind of acid that allowed to eat through the ground easily. The head was bulky, with a helmeted front serving as the pilot that allowed it to plow through whatever was in its way and direct them over to the sides for the acid to dissolve.
I also notice that argent sand is left behind in its wake. The same kind that covered half of Fuyuki during the last trip. If it did work like a giant earthworm, was it decomposing solid materials and then leaving the sand out as excrement of some kind?
I don’t have long to think on it before my consciousness is abruptly ripped from my body. The next thing I know, I’m getting an aerial view of the worm tearing apart another block. Every single person we saved is floating around with us as well as Nemesis Q stands in the air above us and looks down on us.
“Send me back home!” yells the Salaryman towards Nemesis Q with a frantic look in his eyes. It sets off a chain reaction as the other start voicing their complaints and desires. I can even hear some threats towards the thing, which probably wasn’t all that smart considering we were currently out of our bodies by its power alone.
Though I don’t think it cares at all considering it remains unmoving with its arms folded behind its back. If that’s the case, could I float a Mind Jack towards it to see if I can understand it… no, it’s a stupid risk right now. Not worth it.
“It won’t respond to any of it, so don’t waste your breath,” Ayako tells the survivors. The pure disdain in her voice makes it clear that her hatred of it hasn’t quelled since the last time it appeared before us, at the end of the last mission. “Just wait for it to give us the mission.”
It takes them all a minute to settle down despite her telling them too. Understandable, given the source of their current problems was right in front of them. But once they do, Nemesis Q finally moves, pointing a long finger down to the ground.
“Drifters—” its voice echoes in my mind as the Taboo continues to writhe around. “—destroy the Taboo to clear this round. Receive the power to change this future.”
So it wasn’t meant to be a recruitment mission after all, but an extermination one. The recruitment was simply due to the loss of the other Drifters who were likely supposed to do this in the first place. Two birds, one stone.
“You can’t expect us to really fight that thing!” one of the high-school girls shouts.
“That’s right!” another one backs her. “We just want to go home!”
Nemesis Q continues to not care now that the mission has been given. It merely waves its hand and a falling sensation overcomes me. My consciousness rejoins my body back on the street not a second later and it takes a moment to get used to having weight again. Once I do, I start to think on the assignment.
The others who hadn’t been exposed to Nemesis Q outside of their dreams are likely even more disoriented. An opportunity to leave this nightmare behind was in front of them, but they couldn’t do anything about it while they were powerless. Really, only one person here could kill that thing.
I look upwards to where Ayako stands and send a simple question through our connection. ‘Can you kill it?’
‘Yeah, but not with the bolts. I’ll need to use an arrow, which means charging time and trading off my Rise and Trace. And since I can’t just guess how dense it is or where the core is, I’ll need to make it powerful enough to level enough of the surrounding area that the blast crater could pass as a lake—’
Her thoughts still as her attention turns to a silhouette in the dust cloud thrown up by the collapsing building. Her vision sharpens even more as the cold wind blows and thins the obscuring veil to reveal… no.
No, it can’t be.
‘Damn it, it’s a Soldier-class Taboo,’ Ayako sends through the line. ‘One of the weaker ones, but having one here means more are around too.’
She’s wrong. That’s not a Taboo. The moment I lay eyes on it, I know what it is.
I know because I’ve seen it before in the past.
It was months ago. At that castle, in that courtyard, I witnessed the hair that was as white as untouched snow in winter become heavy and dyed with the blood of its owner. I’ve seen those eyes that resemble rubies without any flaws become clouded as the head they were attached to fell onto the ground and stared up as the sword-propped corpse it was cut from. Gilgamesh had once said that humans would be naturally incapable of such features that were so pristine that they couldn’t have been left up to chances through genetics.
No, it was made through artificial means. A tool that was just a magic circuit sculpted into a human shape. It was a…
A shuddering breath leaves my mouth as the forest comes into my view. Becomes my world as I run through it aimlessly. I’m not thinking about anything other than trying to reach the edge.
I can’t feel my right arm. It was such as small stab from Lancer’s weapon, yet it robbed me of an arm that dangles uselessly. Not only have my chances of becoming a magus have been lost, but my defective body has become crippled too.
I can only laugh as the pain hurts like nothing before as I come to a stop against a tree, at the edge of clearing that spreads out in front of me. Then Gilgamesh appears before me, mocking me for taking an injury he should have been protecting me from. He has the still-beating heart of the albino brat in his hands and says the words I never wanted to hear again.
“There’s another Master right here who can serve as an anchor, correct?”
No. No! N—
…A wet, piercing sound reaches my ears. I look down to see his arm is inside my stomach. The heart is inside of my body. “Ah…? Ahh… ghh?”
Then the agony of still-beating heart after violating my body blossoms anew. The black mud fills every cell with liquid curses—hatred distilled that cursed me for my very existence. It warps and stretches, swelling without breaking as it boils inside the decaying and expanding flesh.
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!
Countless worms squirm, writhe, expand the flesh and blood vessels to become a lump of meat that grows from my center and back. They won’t stop spreading. They won’t stop violating me.
Ith—urts, ithu—rts, ithur—ts, ithurts!
They invade my chest, breaking open the rib cage with a crunching sound and swallowing my heart. They invade my throat and rob me of air to strangle me from the inside out. Only a garbled choking sound would leave my mouth as the world swirls black and red.
And then the visions come.
A woman being ██████ with a █████ in front of her child. A corpse being ███████ for all to see, ████ wretched between their teeth as the people watch in glee at the desecration.
██████████ shows me nothing but horrors.
██████████ shows me the horrors born of man.
The evils of man. Their sins. Their wretched desires. Their base nature.
██████████ basks in it as ██████████ straps me to the throne overseeing it and I’m ██████████████ unable to ████████████████ as ████████████████ laughs!
“HHAAAAAAHHH!!” I gasp as my vision clears. I’m staring into the ashen sky from the ground with Ayako’s face hovering above me a second time. She looks pale this time. “Haaaaahaaaa… hahaa…haaa…”
“Are you back?” she asks.
I open my mouth to speak but words don’t come out. I try to send a message through the Mind Jack, but we’re no longer connected. I can only nod and make a croaking sound.
She closes her eyes and shudders before looking up towards Gai. “Take him inside and watch the others. I’ll go deal with everything.”
“Wait, didn’t you say you don’t know how many of those Soldier-class Taboo are around?”
“Yeah, I can’t be sure.” She rises to her feet and looks out to the distance. “They’re like roaches. If you see one then there’s more. But they’re weak enough and if I kill enough of them I should get a clear shot eventually.”
“Then I should go with you at least.”
She shakes her head. “These kinds are like scouts and are stronger than ordinary humans, but after a trip or two strength stops being the problem and their numbers do. Most of them don’t really speak or have personalities, but they’re capable of thought enough to plan tactics out and have access to the base-level PSI just like us. It doesn’t grow in strength, but pitting a newbie against them would just end up with you being overrun eventually… though there are exceptions, where one will be stronger than the others and stand out, I can handle one of those easily.”
“Even so, you need all of your energy for the shot, don’t you?” he asks. “Can you deal with them alone and have enough strength to do that?”
She glances back to me and then looks away. “It can’t be helped. Shinji isn’t the type to fight up close even if he wasn’t injured, and you haven’t had to kill something that looks so human before, so you might hesitate and these guys will take advantage of it. I’ll just have to try and conserve my energy until I find an opening and kill the worm.”
Then she leaves without another word while I can’t bring myself to move. But I caught that look in her eyes. The gleam within it that came from witnessing something so horrifying that you can’t forget it.
The reason the connection between us was severed was because she rejected. She saw something so horrifying that she instinctively severed it with all her might to try to get away from it. The fact that Gotou still has his and is mostly fine means it must’ve been something done on her part to see the memories, but that doesn’t matter—only the fact that she had seen something does.
But I can’t worry about even that now. My thoughts are on a single thing. A single question I can’t help but wonder the answer to:
Why is a Homunculus here?
We make it back to the street where we’ve set up a safe zone just before nightfall. The sound of a sniffle draws my eyes behind me. The paralyzing effect from the Hound’s scream has worn off, so the three girls that stupidly got themselves involved in this are walking between myself and Gai, while Ayako takes the front as a vanguard should something pop out.
Saegusa looks like she’s on the verge of crying again. I don’t know what they’ve been through since they got here, but my attempt to find out was rebuffed by Ayako and Gai. They apparently have something against wantonly reading memories of people they considered friends and uninvolved.
Ayako looks over her shoulder to three of them and takes on a gentle tone as she addresses the crying girl. “We’re almost there. You’ll be safe then.”
Unfortunately, her words serve as the cue for the loud-mouthed one to start asking questions. “Can you guys tell us what’s happening here? Where are we? What was that exploding thing you did before?”
Ayako points to me. “Shinji will do the explaining once we get all of you squared away.”
I blink. “What now?”
“Your arm is injured and we need to get the supplies, so you’ll be watching them and the other survivors.”
Fear finds its way into the Saegusa’s eyes when she realizes that she’s going to be separated from the two heavy-hitters of our little group. “Y-You’re not going to be there?”
Ayako gives the girl a reassuring smile. “Between the two of us, it shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to get back where we started and retrieve our supplies. We’ll block the exit again so nothing will get in, just to be safe.”
The fact that she looks a little relieved when she finds out she doesn’t have to rely on me solely is a little insulting considering the pain my arm is in because I put myself out there for them. But, focusing on the more pressing issue, I shoot a telepathic message to Ayako.
‘So, to what extent am I telling them and the others?’
‘Give them the truth about the cards and their circumstances. But be gentle. People usually either try to deny it or panic in their circumstances since they just want it to end, and I’ve seen some commit suicide before.’
‘I’m more concerned with the fact that they saw us using our powers and will be just as afraid of us as they were the monsters when they settle down.’
Her expression shifts. Ah… I see, it’s happened before. ‘That’s why you’re going to explain about PSI too. They’ll be less likely to act that way if they understand they’re one of us as well. But if you need to defend yourself, I won’t hold it against you.’
“How many others have you saved?” Himuro asks, breaking into the telepathic discussion between us.
The number Ayako gives is about seventeen with them. Over half were the ones who managed to get themselves thrown into a pod and then freed by us, coming to about nine. The other five had been actively running like these three. We guided them to the very building we came to a stop at a minute later.
Ayako uses her telekinetic hands to move a large piece of debris that blocked the entrance, set into place when Gai brought the nervous wreck of a Salaryman inside. There’s a staircase going down into a corridor underground that ends in a steel door with an eye slot. It looks sketchy, but Ayako assures the others they’ll be safe here again and ushers us into the staircase before she shifts the rubble back into place.
“Is this an underground bar or something?” Makidera asks as she stares at the sign, trying to make it out in the dark as I knock on the door.
“It’s close enough. The building is mostly in one piece where it counts and sound-proof, which means it’s well-insulated. Given we don’t know how long we’ll be here, that’s a necessity since most of the Taboo we’ve seen so far track by sound and we don’t want to freeze to death.”
Plus, it looks like it would have been an elegant place of sorts. I can imagine a soft tune playing through the speakers as a hostess ran the bar for customers who just wanted to relax a bit and let the world outside of these walls drown out. Yeah, we can pass it off as an underground bar as long as they stay out of the back rooms until we can hide or destroy everything that said otherwise—though I personally think that they shouldn’t really care as long as the beds were still intact, since it meant they didn’t have to sleep on the floor.
The eye slot opens after I knock again. A pair of eyes look into mine before it closes and the door itself opens to reveal a tall guy with red hair. He reminds me a bit of a thug, despite the fact that he was cowering when we found him.
The stink of cigarette smoke slams into me like a wall when I enter. I trace the source to the three people off to one side, taken from one of the pods. There was an older girl clinging to a guy wearing sunglasses, both of whom seemed college-aged. Next to them was a tough-looking man who was in his 30s at a guess, sucking on the half-lit cigarette in his mouth.
I was not going to sit here and deal with that stench. “Put it out or get out. Your choice.”
He shifts the cigarette and steps forward like he’s going to cause problems. It would end poorly for him considering I’ve killed things bigger than him in the last few hours. Fortunate for him, the sunglasses guy places a hand on his arm to stop him from getting bounced.
“Just do it, Shibata,” he says to the man. “Don’t want to make things worse, do we?”
The tough guy grumbles under his breath about respect but listens to his younger companion and puts it out with his shoe. Sunglasses then takes a step forward. His hands are raised to show he doesn’t mean to cause trouble.
“Sorry, my friend here is just a little concerned about our situation and wanted to take the edge off a little. Not all of us are as… gifted as you and your friends seem to be, going by the stories we’ve heard from the others here, and we’re still confused. You understand, right?”
“Keep your friend in check then,” I warn him. “The other two are a lot more tolerant than I am, but until they get back I’m the one calling the shots here. Got it?”
“Crystal clear.” He gives me a slight bow of his head and then gestures to girl next to him. “My name’s Sakishita by the way, and this is my girl, Marina.”
Unlike him, who seems to be awfully relaxed all things considered, she clearly looks like she’s on the verge of having a panic attack. Her clinging to him is for security then. “Baby, I want to go home.”
“Just relax, babe. I’m sure this guy will tell us how to do that.” He looks up to me and gives me a smile that annoys me. “Right?”
“Yeah, I’ll explain that once these three get seated.” I direct the Track Trio over to a table with a long seat against the wall that could fit the three. “Get comfy, this’ll take a while.”
Himuro and Makidera head over immediately, with the latter sitting with her back straight and posture rigid. Even in this situation she remains uptight. On the other hand, the former just flops down ungracefully and exhales as though she’s relieved to get off her feet.
Saegusa is the odd one out. She hesitates, looking between the seat and me. “Umm…”
She bites her lower lip and grabs the hem of her track jacket nervously before she inhales and bows her head. “I’m sorry, Matou-san.”
I try to figure out what she’s done to warrant an apology, but nothing comes to mind. She’s too timid to do something like prank me or talk ill behind my back. “What for?”
She looks at my arm. Remorse colors her eyes. Guilt. “I always thought you were scary in school, but you still jumped in to help us and got hurt. So…”
“Oh that. Don’t apologize for something that isn’t your fault.” If anything, it’s Makidera’s fault for getting caught. And really, I was more worried about what would happen with Ayako if I didn’t save them. “This isn’t even as bad as my first trip all things considered.”
“Even so, thank you for saving us.” She raises her head and gives me an appreciative, innocent expression that wouldn’t be out of place on Sakura’s face when she was younger. Before I knew everything that I knew and did everything I did….
I look away. “Fine, you’re welcome. Now go sit with the others, so I can get started.”
She scurries over to their side and takes a seat next to Makidera, who gives her a slight smile while she looks somewhat nervous at the attention she’s gained from the others—not all of it goodwill, given she was holding up the explanation. In particular, there was a group of girls across from this trio who looked annoyed more than anything.
I was fairly sure that were also high schoolers considering their clothes were somewhat standard of a uniform, though they weren’t exactly wearing them in the proper style with their coats tied around their waists. They were the ones from the first pod we saved and were less talkative given everything they went through, so they shouldn’t cause any problems for those three. Still, it did remind me that there was a somewhat varied mix of people that we’d saved to this point.
The last of the pod people were a trio of guys that looked college-age like Sakishita, sitting in the third row of seats against the wall. One of them wore a set of glasses and was fiddling with his phone, which wasn’t working. The second had a set of headphones resting around his neck. The last one of that group had a wool cap over his head.
At the edge of the counter, sitting on the bar chair, was a black-haired man in a suit that was sitting with his elbows propped up on the table and covering his eyes. He was shuddering, tear stains marking where he’d let his fear spill out. Clearly a salaryman in over his head.
A few seats from him was a woman maybe in her mid-20s. She wore a standard outfit I’d expect from someone who worked a part-time job at a convenience store chain. The majority of her attention was fixed on her own calling card, rather than her surroundings.
Then there was the black-haired girl with a ponytail, dressed in a sports jacket and jeans. She had a cloth pressed against her cheek from where she’d been injured, a slight swelling and bruising. Unlike most of the others, we found her actually attempting to defend herself when she ran into a Taboo. It didn’t work out, but it was clear she was a fighter.
Last was a scraggly guy dressed in a jump-suit that had paint stains over it. He looked like he didn’t care much about his appearance, and his hair was long enough that it obscured half of his face. He was sitting on the floor with one hand on his knee, watching all of us in a way that creeped me out.
I take a seat at the closer end of the counter and pull out my calling card, holding it up for them to see as I get started. “Since you’re here, you clearly have one of these. And if you’ve read the back of the cards and had the dream, you know that this is the future—”
“How much did it cost to set it all up?” asks Cellphone from his seat, interrupting me. He makes a flourish with his hands to our surroundings. “Where are the cameras?”
I raise a brow at the stupidity. And I’m not the only one, given that everyone shares the sentiment. Really, the only exceptions are Saegusa, who’s too nice, and the Salaryman, who looks almost hopeful at the thought of this being a set-up. Poor fool.
“Are you an id—” I catch myself before I call him an idiot. Not a good idea right now to actively antagonize someone else after the tough guy a minute ago. “I get you’re skeptical because you didn’t see the bodies before you got thrown into a pod dragged here, but it’s not. Otherwise, how do you explain everything?”
“Movie set. And some buff extras to throw us into the pods.”
Himuro tilts her glasses up as she peers through the lenses with a more refined look than the rest of us are giving him. She still sheltered the same thoughts as us though, just better masked. “I sincerely doubt that this is some elaborate movie set.”
“And those things weren’t human,” Ponytail adds, tilting her head over to me. “Didn’t react like one when I hit a nerve cluster, and I saw his friend tear one in half without so much as a scream. And it was still moving until he smashed it in the chest afterwards.”
She sets down the cloth and straightens her back as she addresses me. “Just Nami is fine.”
“Those things are called Taboo by the Veterans, and they can survive a lot of punishment unless you hit them in their core and smash it. Whatever they are seem to play into how the future became this way, and I believe that might be part of why we were summoned after the ringing began.”
“That ringing was a pain to deal with,” Sakishita says, tapping his ear. “I tried drowning it out with music and all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t stop. I thought I was going to go deaf.”
I shake my head. “It was on the back of the card that you had a set amount of time to answer or you really would have died. Anyone who doesn’t answer the summonings does, likely to keep it a secret and to enforce participation. It’s part of the contract and we haven’t found a way out of it.”
The Salaryman jumps out of his seat at that, as though offended. “I didn’t sign a contract! Even if I did, what kind would allow for this sort of thing!?”
“The kind that kills you if you don’t obey it. When you accepted the card, you established a contract with that bird-man thing that we call Nemesis Q to change the future.” I tap my head and then my heart. “That’s what that sensation of barbed wire coiling around your brain and heart and digging in was. You’ve all felt that, right?”
Surprisingly, they all looked at one another in confusion until Saegusa shifts in her seat and raises her hand. “Um… it felt kind of like a ribbon to me.”
“Mine felt like a silken cord,” Himuro adds.
“A kimono sash for me,” Makidera claims.
The others give their own descriptions. Not one of them had the barbed wire treatment, though there were gems like piano wire and chains. So Nemesis Q apparently just hated me that much.
“Either way,” I continue. “Once that happened you were bound to the terms of the contract you made, which was to change the future—this future. If you try to break the rules past a warning, those constrict and kill you. Those cases of Sudden Death Syndrome all over the world are likely the result of that.”
I pause a moment to let that sink in. I don’t want to rush in or give them too much information all at once. In fact, I’d prefer it if someone else took the reins, but Ayako is still a good distance out.
The silence breaks when Himuro’s curiosity gets the better of her. “Presuming that is the case, that we’re in the future, can you explain how we got from our time period to this one?”
“If I had to guess, that contract created a bridge that allowed for our souls to leave our body and be displaced them in time. Our bodies are still back in the past, unconscious but still alive. Once the trip is over, we’ll snap back to them.”
“So all those rules are real then?” asks the woman at the counter as she rises out of her seat. “If we die here, our bodies back in the past die too?”
“That’s right, Miss…?”
“Miss Kitano, the damage to the soul is reflected onto the body. Any wounds you sustain here end up hitting your real body all at once when it jumps back and if you die here, you die there.”
She lowers her eyes. “My brother had one of these cards on his desk the day he died. It looked beat-up and worn. Does that mean one of those monsters killed him?”
If his card was as beat-up as Ayako’s then the guy was definitely an Active Drifter. “…When did it happen?”
“It was a few days ago. I took the train to my brother’s apartment in Setagaya to find him slumped over at his desk with a beat-up calling card like this in front of him. I thought he was asleep since he was still breathing, so I didn’t try to wake him as I cooked dinner for him since he worked hard… and… and…”
Considering the fact that her body was trembling as she held her free hand to her throat and how the color drained from her face as she trailed off, I’m presuming he didn’t just drop dead either. Still, if it was a few days ago, that would explain why he wasn’t here now. There must’ve been a mission that we weren’t a part of.
I float a Mind Jack over to her and gently inserted before I pulled on her memory and—
The apartment is small overall, the sort of place that a part-timer could rent with a small section in the front to serve as the kitchen, with a few cabinets, a refrigerator, and pantry. She enters through the door at that end, her key jangling as she pulls it free of the lock. She shuts the door behind her as she calls out into the darkness. “Nii-san?”
There is no answer, even as her eyes take a moment to adjust and she spots his figure at the desk. It lies against the back wall, underneath the window, in the middle of the room. The futon is folded on the right and the television, a small thing on a stand, is on the left and turned off.
“Don’t tell me you fell asleep while studying?” She huffs as she sets the bags of groceries down on the counter and goes over to his side. Lying with his head on the desk, the calling card is in front of him with his phone adjacent to it. She spots a traveling bag by his legs as well, leaving her to wonder if he planned on going somewhere or was waiting for someone when he fell asleep.
“You shouldn’t sleep at the desk,” she tells him as she tries to wake him by shaking his shoulder. When that gets no response, she tries harder. There still no response leaving her to get worried now. She checks his pulse and find that it’s still strong, so she brushes it off as him sleeping deeply and begins to cook.
As she cooks, she thinks of her brother fondly. She thinks about how he moved out of the house in Hiroshima when he was younger and how she often came over likewise, trying to see him despite him telling her not to since it was dangerous for someone her age to traveling alone on the train. He was a large part of her life, someone she cared about dearly, and so she didn’t feel a burden for helping him out like this since he tried so hard in her eyes—going so far as to make his favorite meal despite being a slight drain on her own budget.
Then there’s a crash. She looks over to the desk to see her brother had fallen out of the chair and was sprawled on the floor. Blood runs freely from beneath his clothes, a deep shade of crimson that spilled out from gashes torn in his flesh that she could barely make out. Then there was his throat, a visceral mess that reminded me of a piece of raw meat with a chunk torn out by a ravenous dog I once saw when I was overseas at the boarding school.
Despite that, he’s still alive. There’s a fleeting moment of life, a flicker in his eyes as he tries to move his mouth to say something. But that fleeting moment fades with the light in his eyes and his head turns to the side, leaving the blood pooling in his mouth to trickle out.
She’s stunned. Her mind takes a moment to grasp was truly happened in that moment as the card she eyed on the desk disappears from her view, crumbling from existence with the sound of shattering glass. The sound acts as a trigger and causes her to start screaming as the full realization sets in that her brother had died horribly, and a flood of emotions starts pouring in.
Nii-san! Be okay. Let me be dreaming. Nii-san! Wake up. Don’t leave me. Nii-san! Niisan! Niisan! Nii—
—I manage to pull myself out of her memories before I drown in her despair. It’s amazing she’s putting on a façade of being merely sad right now considering it had only been a few days. But what the hell was that?
For me, reading someone’s mind is different from reading their memories. When they’re actively thinking, it’s like listening to their thoughts or I can see what they see by actively reading what they perceive as it comes. But when it’s a memory, it’s like flipping through the pages of a book—though I could see glimpses of images if I really wanted to, sort of like taking a passage from the pages and turning them into a film.
That time was different. It was almost like I was there. Like in my… in my nightmares. Was it because the first time I was in the past, but this time I was in the future? I shelve it for later when I hear a startled gasp from Saegusa and notice how terrified she was as she listened to Kitano talk.
“—it was like some kind of large animal mauled him to death, the sort of thing seen on a nature show. The police originally thought I had done it and was in shock, until the autopsy showed that whatever it was that tore into him couldn’t have been done by a human. I wanted to know what happened so badly, then I was visited in my dream and told there were answers if I took it.”
Saegusa isn’t the only one looking horrified as she finished. Marina, the Salaryman, those three high-school girls, share in her terror. The rest at least looked disturbed by the implications of dying here without anyone realizing what happened. Except for the creep on the floor.
He was smiling even wider.
The Salaryman loses his composure at last. He rushes over to me, knocking both his chair and Kitano to the floor in the process of grabbing me by my shoulders and shaking me like a can of spray paint. “I can’t afford to die like that here! Get me out this instant!”
Nami helps Kitano up to her feet again and glares at him. “You’re the oldest one of us here at a glance, so why don’t you act the part and calm down?”
“Shut up!” he snaps at her. “I’m not like the rest of you. I have a wife and child and family and career waiting for me!”
“Let…go,” I warn him through gritted teeth. Leaving aside the fact that I liked personal space, he was hurting my arm. “Now!”
He doesn’t. He just keeps demanding that I get him out and that he didn’t care what happened to the others, making things worse by panicking. Not to mention he’s spitting in my face as he does so, which is disgusting and further pisses me off.
…Well, Ayako did say I could defend myself. I grasp his wrist with my good hand and get ready to use Strength-Rise to snap it like a twig. But before I could make it happen, the guy with red hair grabs him and pulls him away.
“You’re not the only one scared, but that doesn’t give you the right to act better than the rest of us!” He forces the older man to the floor and pins him into place. “You can stay like this until you settle down.”
The Salaryman struggles to get back to his feet, but it’s just not happening. Red Hair is clearly stronger and he’s got him pinned in a way to where he can’t get leverage. As far as I was concerned, he could stay that way for a moment.
Kitano takes a seat again with Nami’s help. She doesn’t look hurt, but she’s clearly still upset. I consider my approach carefully as I wipe the spittle away and sent a message to Ayako about her brother.
‘I knew him,’ Ayako sends back through the connection we have. ‘Tatsumi and I ran a mission or two together, but he worked with the other Drifters around the Tokyo area. When we get back I’ll have Issei check on the others, but if he’s dead then…’
They’re dead too. I had already come to that conclusion, but I can feel the bitterness in her mental voice as she trails off. Nothing I can do about that except keep the peace here for now by addressing these two first.
I start with Kitano. “Your brother was probably one of the Active Drifters who chose to fight because he wanted to change the future, so you didn’t have to one day wake up to a world like this. He has my respect for that. It won’t bring him back, but we’ll do our best to see that you get out of this alive.”
I then look over to the Salaryman, still writhing beneath Red Hair. “As for you, I get you too. You didn’t know what you were signing up for and it puts your livelihood and family at risk. But if you panic, you’ll die. If you want to get home, stay calm and listen to what I say instead of freaking out. Got it?”
His lips purse thin, but he nods and stops struggling.
“Flip out again and you’re going right back on the ground,” Red Hair warns him as he gets off of him.
The Salaryman rises to his feet and dusts himself off, silently looking disdainfully at the thug-looking high-schooler who’d pinned him down. The feeling was mutual, and not just between them. He hadn’t earned a lot of friends with that stunt just now.
My eyes span the room. They’ve seemed to calm down somewhat, or at least realize the situation better. “To get back home, we need to wait until Nemesis Q reappears. He usually assigns the Active Drifters some kind of task. If it’s to reach a location, we’ll escort you. If it’s to kill something, that’s our job. Either way, once we’ve completed it, we’ll go back to our bodies in the past. The moment you get back, you’re going to contact a number we’ll give you so that we can see about teaching you to control your powers.”
“You mean like what you and the others can do?” Sakishita asks as I take a seat on the counter again, his tone doing nothing to hide how excited he seemed at the prospect despite how much of an annoyance it was to the two next to him. “We get them too?”
“Yeah, that’s part of the contract. If you survive your first trip, you gain powers shortly after you wake up. It’s unpleasant and involves a fever, nosebleed, and more, but they grow in strength over time. We call these powers PSI.”
I decide to demonstrate just to get the point across for the skeptics. I don’t want to reveal that I could potentially read their minds, nor would I try again after that last time, so it’ll have to be telekinesis. I look over to the bar chair that was knocked over by the Salaryman and make a gesture for it to move while focusing my mind and energy enough to get results—I don’t need as much effort as I did with the chain for this.
It floats in the air and lands next to the man upright, startling him enough to jump. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy that reaction after he manhandled me. But I keep my expression schooled as I continue. “Take a seat, this’ll take some time to explain properly.”
Yukika Saegusa woke that morning when she felt a prod to her cheek courtesy of her younger brothers, who claimed that they were hungry. She snapped upright at that and looked at her clock to see that she was late in waking up—far later than normal. On a normal day, she would have already made breakfast for her family and a lunch for herself before her parents saw them off to school.
“I’m so sorry!” She stumbled out of bed hastily. If she hurried she would be able to get them something to eat—eggs and toast at the very least. It was her responsibility since her parents’ worked so hard to support all five of their children. “Just give me half-an-hour and I’ll have breakfast read—Ahhhh!!”
In her haste she tripped over her own feet and would have hit the ground if not for one of her brothers, Kouta, reaching out to catch her. She wasn’t exactly heavy, but he was still on the young side and didn’t have much muscle. So he ended up beneath her rather than stopping her fall.
“Nee-chan, you’re heavy!”
She rose to her feet and helped him up. “Sorry Kouta. I’ll make your breakfast now, but you’ll have to settle for just eggs and toast this morning.”
“But I want Oyakodon!” Kouta crossed his arms and pouted. “It’s my day today! I checked the chart!”
“I’m sorry, but there’s not enough time.” She felt bad about it too. Her brothers tended to be naughty, but they liked the breakfast schedule that she came up with and had been good recently. Well, mostly good by their standards. “I’ll make it up during dinner, whatever you want.”
The smirk that formed on his face told her it’d be an outrageous demand, but as long as it silenced him for now that was all she asked before she made her way to the kitchen to cook. It was a small kitchen, but a familiar one. As much as her brothers riled her up, they left the kitchen unsullied since she was the one who did most of the cooking—though her mother helped when she had time off.
Yukika managed to get the light breakfast made in time before they left out, on their way to school. Then she was home, alone. Not enough time for her to make a lunch if she was going to make herself presentable to her classmates. And she didn’t want to spend more money than necessary, so she would have to settle for picking something up along the way if it was on sale and call that her lunch.
She could only blame herself as washed her face in front of the mirror. Ever since that night where she had that dream of that… thing and found that card in her room, she had been on edge. The thought that someone or something had slipped into her home so easily left her panicking out of fear of the unknown, jumping at shadows.
Not for her own sake, but for that of her brothers. They needed her to look after them. She was responsible for them. Yet, chasing rumors somehow led to the sanctity of their household being violated. What if whatever or whoever it was decided to do something to them?
It would be all her fault, and she couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. That was why she had left the calling card at school, in the locker that she had access to as the manager of the team. She didn’t want it anywhere near her family, but she was afraid to get rid of it since she didn’t know what that would do.
It’ll be fine, she told herself to quell the fear in her heart that bubbled up at the thought. If Kane-chan and Maki-chan aren’t worried about it, then I shouldn’t either.
Kane had assured her that it was nothing to worry about and Makidera had all but brushed it off as far as she could tell. Those two were pillars in her life, two people she found companionship with the most outside of her family. Kane was wise and regal, while Makidera was energetic and fun, but both were protective and supportive of her.
If her best friends didn’t find it terrifying, she was sure that she was just blowing things out of proportion. At least, that’s what she thought before the ringing started later that day. It was a phantasmal ringing that couldn’t be drowned out by covering their ears or using earphone and music, ever-present and resonating from within them in a haunting tone.
It wouldn’t go away, no matter what they did. It continued until the ringing became unbearable by the time they finished their afterschool track practice. By then, Yukika struggled just to string together a coherent thought.
“This can’t be happening,” she said in pain as the ringing made her head ache and left her sitting on the bench in the locker room, tears stinging her eyes.
Makidera was leaning against one of the lockers as well with strain evident on her face as she tried to bear with it. “Maybe it was something we ate?”
Kane shook her head and spoke the words they were too afraid to even think of. “It has to be the summoning toll mentioned in the dream.”
Yukika’s heart palpitated upon hearing those words. Not only because it reminded her of that creature that coiled a ribbon around her heart and mind before she woke to find the calling card on her nightstand, but because she could hear them clearly despite the ringing in her ears that wouldn’t go away. Those words and the weight they carried added credit to what she said.
Yet, she denied it. Yukika shook her head in disbelief, desperate to not let it be true. “No…”
“It’s the only reason I can think of that all three of us are like this.” Kane massaged her temples and closed her eyes. “Even if it doesn’t make sense, all we have are the rules on the back of the cards to go by.”
Makidera shot her an annoyed look. “Hold on. You said you saw that Mitsuzuri had one of those cards, right? Let’s just go ask her if it really is a part of this and see if she has some way to deal with it.”
Kane’s silver hair swayed as she gave a shake of her head. “She’s left campus already with Shinji Matou. His sister is managing the Archery Club and can’t reach them. She doesn’t even know where they’ve gone.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
Kane reached into her pocket slowly and pulled out her calling card. “We have to make the call. Do you have your cards?”
Makidera grimaced. “It’s in my bag.”
Yukika hesitantly nodded as well, swallowing the rising lump of fear in her throat. “My locker.”
“Go get them and we’ll make the call together.”
The ringing stopped the moment they dialed the number. Or was it simply forgotten? Left behind in the enclosure of the locker room rather than under the dulling, silver-lined sky of thick clouds they found themselves staring up at.
“A-Are we all having a nightmare or something?” Makidera said aloud, a bead of sweat trailing down from her brow as her eyes spanned the new landscape they were in.
“Th-That must be it.” It didn’t make sense unless they were just having a nightmare. Yukika pinched herself as a cold wind threaded the rows of buildings that were in various states of disrepair. The pain stung enough that she winced, but it didn’t make the nightmare end. Slender fingers grasped her hand and stopped her before she could try again.
It was Kane, looking through her glasses with a sad gaze. “It’s not a nightmare.”
Yukika shook her head vigorously in disbelief. “It has to be! What else could it be!?”
“I’m not sure what this is, but if we panic we’ll only endanger ourselves. Let’s stay calm.”
Yukika didn’t hear her as she staggered back, holding her head with tears in her eyes. “I need to get home! I need to get back to my brothers! My family!”
Makidera grabbed her shoulders and held her steady. “Himuro’s right. We’ll get you home safe and sound, so keep calm, Yukicchi.”
That seemed to quell her fears somewhat. At least until Kane looked over the smaller girl’s shoulder and her eyes rose in stunned confusion and fear. Yukika took notice and turned to see what had grabbed Kane’s attention.
It was a monster. Flesh stretched over hulking muscles that exceeded what was humanly possible, combined with misshapen limbs that didn’t belong as it held an upside down body lifelessly in its grasp. On the ground next to it was a pair of monstrous dogs of some kind, sitting on their hind legs. The trio of monsters faced the three of them, lacking eyes yet somehow able to stare at them unwaveringly.
They froze in place out of the sheer abnormality of what they were seeing. Monsters and a corpse akin to the hanged man, blood flowing from a smashed head as papers floated down from the building above—a business man who committed suicide by falling in an attempt to escape the nightmare. Then the masked-headed brute opened its mouth and let a haggard breath as it dropped the corpse with a wet thunk.
Something snapped inside of Yukika and her fear spilled out in the form of a scream at the top of her lungs. “AHHHHHHH!!!”
The scream acted as a starting pistol. Instincts of hunters and prey took root and blossomed, determined in an instant. The dogs moved in for them as the masked hulk screamed in place of a verbal order and the girls ran.
Kane Himuro was their jumping ace, but was good at short-sprints as well. Kaede Makidera was confident in her physical strength and excelled at mid-distance running. Between the two of them, it was entirely plausible to run long enough to escape and find somewhere to hide.
But not Yukika Saegusa, who was on the verge of passing out from fear. She was only the team manager and certain to be the first one captured by the monsters if left on her own. If it was survival of the fittest, she was only suited for serving as a distraction while the other two escaped.
Neither entertained the thought. Instead, Makidera grabbed Yukika and threw her over her shoulder. With her heart racing even though she was being carried, Yukika bore with the uncomfortable sensation of a shoulder digging into her stomach as they ran.
Fear sent adrenaline coursing through their bodies. The chill of the metallic air was all but forgotten as they burned on the inside. Pushing their trained bodies to the utmost limit they ran down the street.
“Through the alley!” Kane yelled from the front. “They shouldn’t be able to see with those things on their faces! If we move fast enough through the turns we should be able to elude them!”
They took a sharp turn down the first alley they found. The path contained two hurdles, an overturned dumpster and a half-fallen fire escape. There was no turning back without being caught, so they could only push through them.
“Maki!” Kane called, arms extended towards the fastest of the three, and the message within it carried. Without stopping, Makidera passed Yukika to the most vertically-inclined of the trio. Freed of the additional weight, Makidera then burst forward with as much speed as she was capable of and lunged forward to vault over the overturned dumpster without stopping.
“This’ll be a little rough, but bear with it!” Kane said as she followed suit with Yukika in her arms. She leapt over the makeshift hurdle despite the additional weight, a testament to the strength of her legs. The moment her feet touched the ground again, she kept running without slowing down.
The first hurdle cleared, they approached the second. The half-fallen fire escape looked as though it fell until it hit the opposite wall and collapsed downwards. The result was a net of rusted steel with just enough of a gap in it where they could make it through if they could get enough height.
Makidera stopped as she approached it and turned around, creating a foothold with her hands to give them a boost. Kane leapt forward with her leg extended out and landed in the prepared foothold. Makidera summoned whatever strength she had to throw the taller girl holding the smaller girl upwards and get enough height to clear it.
The landing was rougher than before. Kane’s knees buckled this time, leaving her to wince in pain. But she couldn’t waste time if they were going to get away. She gritted her teeth and then stood up, forcing herself forward as Makidera climbed over the second hurdle.
They made to the mouth of the alley as Kane began to pant with heated breaths. She was good at short-distances, but they were at the point where she was reaching her limit since carrying Yukika was taking its toll.
Yet she couldn’t stop running. A howl disabused her of the very thought. The monster-dogs had already entered into the other end of the alley, eating up the distance bought with their concerted efforts in a hurry.
“Get lost already!” Makidera shouted as she rammed the half-fallen fire escape with all the strength she could muster. The impact was enough to wrench the remainder of it loose, freeing it from its rusted bonds. It went crashing towards the monster-dogs chasing after them with a loud and deafening sound, obscuring her foot falls as the Black Panther started running again.
“I think I got them!” she said with a proud smile as she caught up quickly while they came out into another street and began to run down it.
“We have… to keep going…into another… alley!” Kane fought to get the words as heated pants left her mouth. She was slowing down now. But they had to keep going ahead if they were going to escape.
“Kane-chan, let me down!” Yukika said, unable to stand the thought of one of her friends being caught because she was slowing them down. “I can run on my own now!”
But it was too late. One of the monster-dogs managed to pull itself free of the wreckage and gave chase after them as they neared the mouth of the second alley. It snarled as it approached the fleeing trio with a frantic gait, racing towards the slowing pair.
“What does it take to get rid of you!?” Makidera shouted as she brought her foot around from below while the other two kept running. The kick connected just below its snout and punted it backwards several feet. She then turned to run, but it got back to its feet before she could make it a step, its mouth splitting into four parts as a scream bellowed out towards her. “Agghhh!!”
“Maki-chan!” Yukika screamed as all the strength seemed to leave Makidera’s body. She collapsed like a puppet with her strings cut, leaving Yukika to fear that she had died. She wriggled out of Kane’s grasp and reached out for her—
“Go…” Kaede called out with a strained breath, struggling to move. Kane did just that upon seeing the other monsters approaching, grabbing Yukika by the hand and forcing her to keep moving through the narrow alley as the monster-dog screamed at Makidera again.
“We have to help Maki-chan!” Yukika cried out as she looked over her shoulder towards the shrinking figure of her fallen friend.
“We can’t do anything for her if we get caught too!” Kane argued as they cleared the mouth of the alley only to meet a dead-end in the front of a pile of rubble from a collapsed building. Before they could run the other way, one of the monster-dogs darted out from the alley and aimed for Yukika.
Kane put herself in front of a scream that left her as immobile and helpless as Makidera. She fell backwards, spared only from hitting her head on the rubble by Yukika’s lithe arms grabbing her as she fell. Using her body as a cushion as they hit the debris pile, she was trapped beneath her remaining friend.
Now there was no getting away. Yukika could barely support Kane’s limp body, let alone climb over the rubble with her in tow. It seemed like they were doomed as the monster-dog’s mouth split open again and it prepared another horrifying scream just for her.
In those final moments, she held Kane for dear life and thought back to her family. She just wanted to see them again. She just wanted to return to her ordinary life with her family and friends… and then the last person they’d expect to see appeared.
Shinji Matou was not exactly someone who the collective trio would be happy to see under normal circumstances. He wasn’t the nicest person by any stretch of the imagination. Even when he showed up to save them, he looked annoyed more than anything.
But, as she watched him run off in the direction where Makidera had been left behind, Yukika had never been more grateful in her life to see a familiar face…
Standing firm with my feet planted on a mostly-intact rooftop, I peer towards the west as a low rumble reaches my ears. Another series of buildings just collapsed, their long and vigilant stance that weathered the end of the world finally coming to an end. It was far off enough that I couldn’t feel the tremors, but the fact that it was the third time I’d heard that happening left me curious as to what the cause was.
Not curious enough to check though. I was already an uncomfortable distance away from the others, who actually could fight effectively with their powers. Going to check it out alone was just putting myself in danger for no reason.
I look over my shoulder to see that the argent cords stemming from the base of my skull were still intact out of habit, rather than necessity. I could still feel the connection of my mind to theirs. It was strange how natural it felt, but these PSI powers seem instinctive to begin with.
The cord linking Ayako’s mind to mine stretched further back and to the left, far into the distance beyond what my eyes could see. At the best I could make out a sliver of light streaking through the sky from that direction as she shot down distant Taboo. Her last message was that she’d managed to take out the majority of the flying Taboo and thus the most dangerous ones, but she couldn’t hit the further ones since her trade-off limited how far she could aim and back with enough power for the shots to count.
As for the idiot, his cord was lower to the ground and moving a bit. There were at least seven or so blocks between us and the husks of buildings stood as barriers to obscure our view. But Gai stated that as long as the cord remained intact he could reach me if something happened by simply plowing through them.
It’s still crude though. Since I’m the central point connecting the other two, any messages that need to be sent have to go through me. I’m basically a glorified phone operator, but it does allow me to control the flow of information and stay up-to-date with how we’re progressing.
Between the two of them and my own ability, I could probably get out of trouble if need be. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t all that eager to even run into any Taboo. So I decided to play it safe by focusing on searching at a slower rate through the use of my enhanced hearing, with mixed success.
I wasn’t sure how many hours it had been since we left the present behind, but it was getting darker now and there was a lot less noise than when we started searching. If we couldn’t hear them or see them, then we couldn’t guide them to the location where we’d arranged for all the survivors to stay before we moved the pods there. Maybe the smarter people still around were hiding quietly to avoid the Catchers and Hounds, but most likely everyone else was dead.
I try not to think about it as I keep moving towards the entrance of what looks to be an entertainment district. The standing buildings are all tightly packed with their displays in various states of disrepair, while some of them had fallen onto the streets below and blocked off the path.
That’s when Ayako contacts me. ‘Shinji, you find anyone else?’
‘Not yet. I don’t think we’ll find anyone else beyond that nervous guy from Sasayama that refused to move unless Gotou walked him back to the others. Speaking of which, it looks like the range for the pool of people they’ve pulled from encompasses half of Japan as a whole if we take his word. Do the recruitment missions usually pull from that many places in Japan?’
‘No. Until now the furthest I’ve been within Japan is from is the Shimane Prefecture when it comes to recruitment missions. It might be that there aren’t any Drifters left in the lower-half of Japan, so they pulled us in for it.’
‘Is that possible?’
‘The death rate for the missions that pitch us against Soldier Taboo is pretty high, so it’s very likely. There aren’t that many of us to start with and we’re lucky in the fact that there are three Veterans to teach us in Fuyuki.’
She’s mentioned those Soldier Taboo a few times now. I really wasn’t looking forward to meeting one of them from how she was describing them, but first I needed to prioritize surviving this mission. We’ve saved a few people but Nemesis Q hasn’t declared the method to finish what we need to do here.
My spine stiffens as a scream rings out, just further beyond the blockade and debris. It’s followed by a Hound unleashing its scream that scrambled the mind and prevented victims from being able to move. Looks like I spoke too soon.
‘Mitsuzuri, I heard a woman screaming and a Hound howling. Do you have eyes ahead of me?’
‘No, it’s a blind-spot for me at this distance with the buildings that tightly packed and I’m lining up a shot to deal with the last of the Carriers before it gets too far away. Can you get eyes on them to see if you can do something before I change targets?’
‘I’ll try.’ I run along the edge of the building I’m on towards as quickly as I can and then jump over to the next one. The buildings that were close together make it easy enough without expending power, but my stamina isn’t the best to be doing something like this without it. In the end, I’m panting by the time I reach the top of the building next to the one that collapsed and get eyes on the screaming person…
It’s the mousey member of the Track Trio from school, Yukika Saegusa. She’s wearing her tracksuit and sitting against the rubble, eyes tear-stricken and wide in fear as she holds the body of Himuro in her arms tightly. It looks like she collapsed over her when she got caught by the scream, but I don’t see the third one.
Stupid of me, I should have suspected they’d be called in eventually. I heard them talking about the calling cards the very day I got caught up in this. Damn it, I don’t have any choice but to act so I jump off the rooftop.
In midair gravity takes hold of me as I use the slowed perception of time to line up my fall and make sure I don’t end up landing short. The world continues to move in slow motion in the process, allowing me to see the surprised look on the Saegusa’s tear-stained face and the Hound turning to face me after picking up my scent. Once I’m sure that I’ll land properly, I redistribute the Rise energy to strengthen my legs and feet to withstand the landing.
I come crashing down on the Hound’s body, carried by my momentum and weight. The result is what you’d expect from a dog ran over by a truck, visceral fluids of some kind splashing over my pants and the girl’s face. Then I stomp on the Hound’s head and core, grinding into it and making sure it’s dead, before I wheel around on Saegusa.
“Where’s the loud one?” I ask right away. If something happens to them then Ayako will have my head for not mentioning it earlier. “You three are never that far apart. Did she get caught?”
Saegusa doesn’t speak. All she does is shake her head as her and cry, eyes red and swollen as tears keep falling. It seems like the shock of everything left her too stunned to get a word out at the worst possible time.
Fortunately, Himuro is conscious and speaks from within Saegusa’s grasp. “A large creature caught her before we crossed the alley to the right.”
“Fuck!” I close my eyes and focus on listening in that direction. The energy threading my body focuses on my ears in response. Sound sharpens. Clarity follows. I can hear bestial panting and scraping of claws against asphalt, a set of larger and heavier footfall, and Makidera’s voice as she demands it let her go.
“You stay here and wait for Gotou or Mitsuzuri! Yell as loud as you can if another one comes close!” I tell them before I start running down that alley Himuro mentioned while sending a message to them both. ‘Mitsuzuri, Gotou, the screaming girl was Saegusa from the Track Club. She’s with Himuro who was caught in a Hound’s scream and can’t move. I left them behind the fallen building in the middle of the road to chase after another Hound and a Catcher that caught Makidera before it can get away!’
I ignore the surprise and loud responses that they give me to focus on the task at hand. I’m not all that fond of Makidera, but when I remember how Ayako mentioned not wanting to see someone she knew die again, I know for a fact that letting something happen to her will send her spiraling the emotional drain again. I did not condemn myself to this nightmare trying to help her just for some idiot to ruin that.
As I run down the alley and come to a stop at the end, I peer over the edge to see that Makidera is slung over the shoulder of the Catcher. It looks like a standard model, the kind that Ayako and Gai would have no trouble with. But it has a Hound a few feet ahead that’s sniffing the ground, no doubt ready to unleash a scream and paralyze her again if it wears off.
If a fight starts then she’ll likely be thrown around, which could prove fatal given how fragile people are in comparison to Taboo, so I should prioritize her rescue. But that Hound is a problem that needs to be dealt with or I won’t be able to get away with her, even if I do manage to snatch her out of its grasp. So my first step is to shut it up.
I look around for something that could pull that much off. The alley is pretty long and narrow, barely more than twice my width. But there’s a set of double door with a rusted chain threading through the handles a couple of times and bound by a lock. PSI-enhanced strength takes root in my arms a moment later and the chain snaps easily under my enhanced strength. Part of that is likely due to the rust, so I doubt I’ll be able to use it to plug the Hound’s mouth for very long. But if it can work for even three seconds I think that I can manage this.
Chain in hand, I ran back over to peer over the side again. They were further away and getting ready to turn to the side of the road. I couldn’t delay it any longer. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I channeled Rise into my legs and leapt out of cover.
The Hound turns my way the moment I land. Either it picked up my scent or heard my footsteps. But it turns my way and the Catcher does the same. No turning back.
I visualize the chain wrapping around the Hound’s mouth, tight enough that it acts as a muzzle to keep its mouth shut. I don’t know the exact mechanics of how it works. I just want it to work. So I pour as much determination and desire as I can into that vision to will it to work, counting on my powers to make it happen.
My vision goes to static for a moment and I feel my connection with Gai and Ayako sever. My mind instead dedicates everything towards my immediate desire, the energy permeating my body converting into something that allows for physical interference as it sinks into the chain. It frees itself out of my hand towards the Hound.
The chains wrap around its muzzle, clamping it shut and sticking there for as long as the energy sinking into it can maintain it. The cost felt heavy just to do that much. Burst really isn’t my specialty after all, but it creates the opening I need to rush forward.
The Catcher’s priorities shift the moment it registers it’s under attack, halfway there. All at once Makidera is thrown into the air as it abandons her to confront me, legs tensing to move with the inhuman speed its kind was so fond of.
I assess the situation. The way it threw Makidera will result in her landing headfirst into a building. She’ll die on impact at how fast she’s going. I have to grab her before that happens. So I sink everything into my body and strengthen it to survive.
Then kick off the ground, diving for her with my arms outstretched. Her weight and momentum buckle my arms and slams into my chest. Then I feel something hard hitting my back before the effects of my Rise-Strength fades, sending pain shooting through my body and knocking the breath out of me—
—and I don’t have time to fight off the pain before Makidera screams as the Catcher lunges towards us, having jumped in the air at some point during that brief moment. Instinct takes hold and ditches the dead weight in my arms to the side. Strength surges and brings both my free arm and the blade up as the claws descend like a guillotine.
My mind flares red, my lungs and throat burn as a scream comes out. One of its claws narrowly misses my head. The other broke my free arm, bone snapping as the flesh was torn into. In exchange for my arm though, my tanto pierces its core.
I bite down the pain and scream to twist the blade, widening the gap as I push it off the side. The blade snaps as the corpse falls to my left, pulling the claws free of the wound and exposing it to the air. It hurts, pulsing with pain with every beat of my racing heart as my lungs start working again to take in deep breaths of the metal and copper scented air.
But at least I’m alive…
…and no sooner than that thought crosses my mind, metal snaps and sends a chill down my spine.
I whip my head around towards the source and see that the chain broke. Now freed from the muzzle, the Hound opens its mouth to scream again when there’s a rush of air and its head falls off. It was severed by the neck as a pole-mounted blade buries itself into the pavement, and the naginata’s owner lands a second later to crush the Hound’s core beneath her foot.
Ayako’s panting as she stares at me. Stray strands of her brown hair cling to her glistening brow, and her chest rises and falls at a frantic rate. She must’ve rushed over to get here on time.
“The cords…cut… I thought that…” She doesn’t finish as her voice turns raspy for a moment. Swallowing saliva to cool her burning throat and taking a deep breath, she asks me, “Are you both okay?”
“WILL SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON!?”
Oh right. Makidera’s here too. Forgot about her for a minute.
I turn to see she’s got a scrape on her head from where I pushed her out of the way. It’s leaking a trickle of blood that runs in a streamlet down her closed eye, and she looks like she’s on the verge of tears from either the pain or the fear. But she was largely unharmed.
Throb. Unlike me.
Ayako notices the wince on my face and crouches down in front of me. “Show me your arm.”
I hold my arm up, showing where the claw hand dug into the coat. A deep scarlet color was staining it. “The Catcher got my arm while I was saving her.”
She looks it over carefully. “I can tell it’s broken at a glance, but not how deep it is. I’ll need to get the sleeve off.”
A hot lance of pain surges through the wound as she slowly peels back the sleeve, freeing the coat’s material from the wet flesh. I suck in a sharp breath to deal with it. “How bad is it?”
“It’s shallow and the break will be easy to set, so you won’t bleed out if we get it covered up and put pressure on it.” She unzips her coat and starts to take it off. “All our supplies are back near where we left them. I should have at least brought the bandages or pain medication or—”
“What about Yukicchi and Himuro?” Makidera interrupts. Her body is trembling, so I assume she’s struggling to regain the ability to move.
“Gotou’s got them both.” Ayako takes a moment to look over Makidera. “How did you even get here anyway?”
“They were chasing down rumors of the calling cards,” I say. Her eyes turn to me for a moment, showing I had her attention. “Himuro’s the type to chase rumors, so once she heard about it there’s no doubt that she would go out and search for it. And Gotou found his card because he was searching to give her one as well. Nemesis Q must’ve caught them in a sweep this time when it started pulling people from all over. ”
“Damn it!” Her fist balls up in anger for a moment. Then she regains control of herself, faces Makidera, and holds up two fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Okay. Now how bad does this hurt?”
Her face scrunches up as Ayako gently touches the wound. “A lot. Now can you explain what’s going on? And what’s with this crazy place and those monsters!?”
“Let me deal with Shinji first and then I’ll get you all somewhere safe and explain everything.”
She rises to her feet and heads over to her naginata, pulling it out of the ash-covered pavement. Then she grabs it with both hands, separated about the length of her shoulders, and turns away from us as a pair of explosion blows it into three pieces. She gathers the broken pieces, crouches down in front of me, and exposes her pink undershirt once more as her jacket comes off.
“What are you doing?” Makidera asks in shock, one eye open and wide in surprise at the situation.
“I need to make a splint for him,” Ayako says factually before she tears the hem of her shirt away and uses two of the broken pieces of her weapon to do so. “Shinji, you’ll probably need a sling for the arm once we get back, but it’ll have to do for now.”
It still hurts, but not as bad as before. “Got it.”
I rise to my feet as she tears another strip of her undershirt off, leaving her midriff exposed as she uses the strip to create a temporary bandage for Makidera’s head. Once it’s patched up, Ayako puts her jacket back on, picks Makidera up, and leads us through the alley towards the other members of the Track Trio. There we find Gotou holding Himuro in his arms, while Saegusa looks terrified as she clings to his shoulder.
Relief briefly crosses their faces when they see one another. It lasts for three seconds before another rumble from collapsing buildings in the distance breaks the moment. Then we head back as the night sets in.
Interlude – Kane Himuro
Soft music filled the air of the second room on the eleventh floor of the Semina Apartments, located in Shinto’s Kurokizaka district. Each floor of the complex had two apartments, and each apartment contained four bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen. It was a luxury apartment befitting those who could afford the four figure monthly rent.
In one of these rooms, Kane Himuro carefully brought a brush against the canvas that was set up, while listening to classical western music. Her father was working late as always, while her mother was with a friend, so it left her without any obligations. She often painted in her free time, when not occupied with Track Club or taking one of her walks throughout Fuyuki, from the Sea Side Park beneath the Big Bridge to the Temple. It really depended on her mood and whether or not she had inspiration to paint.
Recently she had come across a mystery that blossomed into unrivaled inspiration, so she was trying to get the painting done while it was fresh in her mind. At least she would be if she wasn’t stuck listening to Kaede Makidera through her phone’s speaker.
“It’s not fair! Why did the Archery Club get the chance to set up a training camp in the mountain while we don’t?”
She had been complaining nonstop for some time now. It wasn’t a surprise since her approach towards the Student President for the sake of having a training camp on the mountains was poorly thought out. Her enthusiasm got the best of her so much that she often refused to think things through.
Someone like that normally got on Kane’s nerves. But after three years of knowing her it had become so ingrained that when Makidera acted like a yamato nadeshiko in her own home, manners and all, it bothered her.
Continuing to paint, Kane simply asked, “Maki, have you considered the Archery Club’s membership being a factor?”
“Leaving aside the fact that you literally burst through the door while he was in a conversation to start making demands without subtly or tact, Emiya is the person he maintains close ties with and remains an unofficial member of the club despite having quit. And Mitsuzuri has been building a rapport with him from the tone of her words with Matou at the mall.”
It was a habit of Kane’s when it came to affairs of romance to take the couple or potential couple and view them like portrait in her mind. Considering how well Mitsuzuri and Ryuudou seemed within that frame, she could see them becoming close enough to be friends through propinquity. Lovers even.
Shelving that aside, she finished her explanation to Makidera. “In contrast, you have ties with Tohsaka. Given his propensity to become guarded and outright hostile around Tohsaka, despite normally being rather dutiful and cordial, their rivalry is rather well-known. When you take that into account, along with her influence among the sports clubs and the fact that Emiya and Tohsaka are in a relationship, he wouldn’t be inclined to allow for an activity that goes outside his duty as the council president.”
“I still don’t see what she sees in that guy,” Makidera responded as usual to that bit of information. Whenever it came up, she tended to rage around a while since the time she spent with someone she considered a friend was cut down because of Tohsaka’s obligations to her boyfriend. “He doesn’t fit with her at all.”
Kane actually agreed with her there. Emiya wasn’t bad per se. He had qualities that she could admire in spades, but compared to the honor student and idol that Tohsaka had established herself as the two were as different as night and day to one another. But it was something of common knowledge around the school now since April and nothing could be done.
Makidera spent a few minutes ranting onwards before settling down. During that time, Kane continued her painting of the coat with its fur collar that splayed outwards in a ring. Getting the details of it with a brush was easier said than done compared to the rest of its body outline.
Then Makidera sighed in exhaustion before speaking seriously, “I just thought it might be a good way to get Yukicchi’s mind off…”
“The red calling cards,” Kane finished for her in lieu of Makidera’s hesitation. It was understandable, given that even she was wary of what happened after the last time she spoke carelessly of it and the one who gave them the cards. It was a humbling and terrifying experience, to say the least.
Kane stepped back and observed the painting. The portrait was a pristine facsimile of the humanoid creature that was strangely avian in nature as it appeared in her dream. It was dressed in a white coat with red trimming, with a starry background of the cosmos and a fleeting light in the distance steadily growing closer to the planet, extending its long arms to hand over the card to her.
She had been chasing rumors of the red cards for some time now because it was in her nature to do so, seeking out logical explanations for the unknown. Things had to have a reason to fit them under her world view. That was how it was for her.
Yet it was the unexplored and unseen things that captivated her. They made her heart race in excitement beneath the placid exterior she wore, a guilty pleasure that led to her searching for the rumored card. So, for such an enigma to appear in her dreams and somehow leave a card behind gave her inspiration, even as the nebulous nature of it nagged her mind as she tried to find a logical reason for how all three of them had the same dream and ended up with the calling card by their bedsides when they woke.
Makidera was wary, viewing it a sick game of some kind with rules printed on the back of the cards. Yukika, on the other hand, had been terrified considering the rumors that the red card marked you for death. More than that, the thought of someone breaking into the home where her family slept and leaving the card behind left her fearing for her little brothers’ safety.
It had brought her to tears.
If there was one absolute both she and Makidera shared it was their desire to look after Yukika. If something threatened her, they would be the ones to shelter and defend her against it. If there was something she was uncomfortable with, they wouldn’t pursue it in her presence. Making her cry or worry was the equivalent of an unforgivable sin, so they decided to try and find the one behind it to put Yukika’s mind to ease.
But they had to be careful until they figured out who was behind everything. There had to be a logical reason for the enigma that was the painted figure that stood before her. Unraveling it would be the best course of action if they wanted to be free.
So she would.